Simon Zebo Could Be Back In Green Next Year

Here’s why Zebo’s exclusion for the Autumn Internationals doesn’t necessarily mean the end of his Ireland career.

When Simon Zebo’s move to Racing 92 was first announced, I and many others wondered whether he had played his last game for Ireland. We would get an answer soon enough, we figured, with Schmidt due to announce his squad for the Autumn internationals in a matter of days.

When the squad was revealed – with Zebo omitted – it caused quite a stir. Multiple obituaries of the Munster man’s international career have been written, and debate has raged as to the rights and wrongs of Schmidt’s decision. Some have praised the Kiwi coach for setting a strong precedent to prevent a mass exodus of Irish talent to the richer English and French clubs; others have railed at Schmidt’s hypocrisy given the prior precedent of picking Sexton during his French sabbatical; while others still have argued to hell with precedent altogether.

But has Schmidt really called time on Zebo’s international career on the basis of his upcoming move abroad? I’m not so sure.

Joe gave two interviews in the last week which shed some light on his thinking on the matter, and his statements are worth examining closely.

‘No policy’

In the first, Schmidt was asked to clarify the IRFU stance on overseas-based players. He replied that “There is no policy, there is only an intention from the IRFU to best protect the provinces and the local game… So the doors are more open than people think.”

He continued, “I was asked earlier would Simon be in the mix. Of course he would be because he was in the forefront of our thinking. But he’s moved to the periphery.”

Now, Ian Madigan and Martin Moore can tell you what being ‘moved to the periphery’ means. And the insistence that ‘there is no policy’ is more to do with PR than policy. It allows the IRFU to justify Sexton’s selection from 2013-2015, and to preserve some flexibility for potential future emergencies – say, should Tadgh Furlong, John Ryan and Finlay Bealham go out for a meal together and get food poisoning. Keeping the foreign selection rule unwritten allows the IRFU to keep Martin Moore’s number on file for this kind of scenario.

So perhaps we can discount those remarks as mere rhetoric. But then came another, potentially more telling, interview last Friday. Not on the subject of Zebo, but on the Autumn internationals.

‘The big competition’

Schmidt said:

“If we want to get a window where we can still look to be as competitive as we can be but also grow the group a bit, this is our window, and that’s part of our strategy behind some of those guys in the back three… If they go well I think that’s a successful Guinness Series for us.”

He added, “We’d love to scrape our way through with the right result and get three results but I think the quality of the performance of some of the individuals… that will be equally important for us.”

This is as close as you will ever hear an international coach come to admitting that immediate results are not his top priority. And there was a final remark of particular interest to Simon Zebo:

“A really positive Guinness Series is to continue from Japan a little bit. We don’t have too many windows. The next window is a massive pressure cooker for us. It’s the Six Nations. It’s the big competition of the year.”

In other words, Schmidt is much more focused on developing young players than on results this November. But that will all change in February. We saw this last year, when the likes of Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney were picked against Italy despite the plethora of young talent in the back row and back three in need of game time. When it comes to the Six Nations, Schmidt is laser-focused on immediate results. This is also IRFU policy, as the championship is the union’s prime source of finance.

A new year’s resurrection?

So perhaps, after all the hand-wringing about the rights and wrongs of Ireland’s foreign players policy, it is not the primary reason for Zebo’s absence this November. Schmidt is treating the November internationals as a development exercise, and has selected two debutants, two rookies, and the still-relatively inexperienced Dave Kearney in the back three for this reason. Conversely, Keith Earls and Rob Kearney are both – rightly or wrongly – above Zebo in Schmidt’s pecking order. With those two providing ample experience, there was simply no space for the Cork man.

No doubt the opportunity to send a message to the likes of O’Mahony and Stander, who are about to enter contract negotiations, was a factor in Schmidt’s thinking when leaving out Zebo for the Autumn internationals. But those negotiations will be done and dusted before he picks the Six Nations squad. And when he does, he won’t be thinking about development. He won’t be including the likes of Adam Byrne or Darren Sweetnam. He’ll pick the best players available to him.

If Zebo, who will still be plying his trade with Munster next Spring, is among those players, he’ll be back in the squad. Whether or not that will continue after he leaves for Paris next summer is, of course, another matter. But it’s certainly not clear that Zebo has played his last game for Ireland. On the third day of February 2018, he could well rise again.

Conor Quinn

Conor Quinn

Conor is an Irish rugby fan and writer based in London.
Conor Quinn