Much has been made of Simon Zebo’s impending departure to play his rugby in France, for a yet unconfirmed destination-possibly Racing 92. As soon as it was revealed that the Irish winger/fullback had spurned the offer of a new Munster contract, speculation was rife with regard to what his exit would mean for Zebo’s international prospects. As it was, we didn’t have to wait long for an answer. Just days later, Irish coach Joe Schmidt announced an extended squad for the upcoming autumn internationals and in the lengthy list of names there was one noticeable absentee-Simon Zebo.
With Rob Kearney’s best days behind him and Jared Payne struggling to achieve an injury free run, it was widely assumed that Zebo was an absolute shoo- in for the Irish fullback berth this autumn. And yet with backfield options scarce, the Munster man has found himself surplus to requirements. Zebo’s omission has certainly shocked plenty of Irish rugby folk, with teammates and fans alike taken aback at the Munster fullback’s unexpected and sudden exclusion.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised, though. In recent years, the IRFU’S policy regarding selection has been abundantly clear. If you move abroad, you’re out! As harsh as it seems, that’s been the immutable rule. With the notable exception of Johnny Sexton (too brilliant to omit), any move outside Ireland has led to the player being sent to Coventry-mostly in a metaphorical sense, you understand, but it also applies literally in the case of Marty Moore! Sexton aside, all high profile movers have been shunned and excluded from Irish selection. It didn’t matter who you were: Ian Madigan, Donnacha Ryan, JJ Hanrahan. If you left the Irish set-up, you paid the ultimate price in terms of test selection.
What makes Zebo’s case fairly unique, though, is the shunning is happening while the player is still here. Remember, he’s not going until next season. In that sense, we can detect a hardening of the Irish management’s position. The policy couldn’t be any clearer: not only will a player not be picked if he moves abroad, it now seems he won’t be selected if it’s clear he’s unavailable for any part of the World Cup cycle. Given the dearth of current options at fullback, the easy option was to pick Zebo. He was the obvious, straightforward choice. In declining to do so, Schmidt has underlined his commitment to the homegrown policy in a devastatingly uncompromising fashion.
Make no mistake about it, Irish rugby is in a bitter fight to hold onto its biggest names. In an ultra-competitive transfer market, it’s simply not possible for the IRFU to compete with the English and French clubs, with their mega-rich benefactors. And as it’s impossible to outbid their Anglo-French rivals, the IRFU has to utilise whatever leverage it has at its disposal. One advantage is the unrivalled way players are looked after within the Irish system. Instead of being flogged to pieces in the Premiership and Top 14, the Irish provinces wrap their star men in cotton wool, sensibly limiting the amount of rugby played.
The other main argument the union uses to encourage players to stay is, of course, selection. Which brings us back to Zebo. This rugby era is unique in that we’re seeing players in their prime abandoning their national systems for the unprecedented riches presently available in the club game. It’s been happening to the All Blacks for years, where even the pull of the hallowed silver fern has been unable to prevent players leaving for Europe with their best years still ahead of them. Think of Charles Piutau at Ulster as a case in point. It was only a matter of time, therefore, before such commercial realities caught up with Ireland.
And the Irish system is particularly susceptible to losing players like Zebo. A fluent French speaker who has often spoken of a desire to broaden his horizons, it’s no real surprise that the Munster man’s head has been turned. Let’s not forget that modern rugby careers are becoming increasingly short. The sport has never been more arduous and players are only ever an injury away from retirement.
And rugby isn’t like football in the sense that superstar players retire without having to work again. Rare indeed is a professional rugby player whose playing career sets him up for life. In this context, it’s quite understandable, then, that players want to enrich themselves and their families in the short time available to them. Simon Zebo is one of the lucky few who has the perspicacity to understand the need to make hay while the sun shines.
For all that, we know what the trade off is. For Irish internationals, their test careers suffer because of pragmatic if understandable choices. Unlike their predecessors of yesteryear such as Keith Wood and Geordan Murphy, the IRFU’s selection policy is no longer allowing players to have their cake and eat it. Players must decide and the choice is stark: remain in the Irish system or risk never playing for your country again.
And although Zebo is the most high profile casualty of this contentious policy, the ramifications extend way beyond any one player. Schmidt may explain Zebo’s omission in his usual loquacious style, but there’s no mistaking the severity of the message. The line is clear and unambiguous. One that’s sent a shudder through every Irish international who values his test career but may have been pondering a possible move abroad. And that’s how it has to be if the IRFU’s policy is to have any meaning. But hey, no-one ever said life was fair. In the merciless battle to hold onto its main men, Irish rugby just got real tough.
By Warwick Gastinger (Rugby World Cup DSCN4917) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons