Gerry Thornley: Zebo loss lessens Ireland's X factor
News that Simon Zebo is leaving Munster is disappointing but not entirely unexpected
Simon Zebo: Think of that back-heeled flick in Cardiff, that range of passing, those counter-attacks, the adroit finishes, the telepathic understanding with Conor Murray. Photograph: Getty Images
The news that Simon Zebo will no longer be playing for his native Munster next season, and by extension Ireland, is desperately disappointing but not entirely unexpected.
Zebo is, along with his good mate Conor Murray, one of Munster’s and Ireland’s marquee players, and therefore most marketable. Zebo has X factor: witness his round-the-back pass to Keith Earls last Saturday against his prospective employers – something that Ronan O’Gara highlighted afterwards – and any other number of game-breaking plays over the last nine seasons at Thomond Park, Musgrave Park and away venues.
Thomond Park and Musgrave Park won’t be the same without him. A little bit of magic and stardust will be lost to the two venues.
The Munster fanbase will not be enamoured with the news that Zebo is set to follow O’Gara and Donnacha Ryan to Parisian club Racing 92.
Ever-smiling, his dashing style of play makes him especially popular with Munster’s younger fans. He is also a match-winner, his exceptional strike rate of 55 tries in 124 games having eclipsed Anthony Horgan’s record haul of 41 for the province in March 2016.
Zebo had remained on a provincial contract, rather than a national contract, although it has always been thus with him, and apparently Munster had been assisted by the IRFU in offering a similarly sized contract.
However, once in a while a big-money French club – especially one backed by a multi-millionaire private benefactor – will inevitably get their man if they want to, in large part due to the sheer size of a financial package that the provinces and the IRFU cannot match.
So it was with Johnny Sexton when he was also lured to Racing for two seasons in 2013. Sean O’Brien came desperately close to joining Toulon in 2015, and Keith Earls very nearly joined Saracens in 2016. Zebo isn’t the first to fly the Irish coop, and he won’t be the last.
It would have been interesting to see how the IRFU and the Irish management would have reacted had either O’Brien or Earls moved abroad. Most probably they would have been treated no differently from recent cases such as Ian Madigan, Marty Moore and the aforementioned Ryan.
An exception was made for Sexton because, well, Sexton is an exceptional player. He had been Joe Schmidt’s playmaker-in-chief for three seasons at Leinster, and would continue to be for Ireland. Aside from that, a key difference was that Sexton would be returning to Leinster before the 2015 World Cup. Zebo will still be based with Racing come the 2019 World Cup.
There are manifold advantages to having a home-based squad. It means the Irish management can have access to any given player, and those players are all controlled by the Irish Player Welfare programme.
But perhaps even more important than that is that selecting purely from home-based players keeps them within these shores and protects the provinces to some degree from avaricious French and English clubs with deep pockets.
At the same time it’s also hard to condemn Zebo in any way. Rugby is a professional sport, and a player’s career is relatively short, as well as being relatively more dangerous and yet less rewarding than soccer.
That Zebo has in effect sacrificed his World Cup ambitions in 2019 is also a little sad, but shows that his decision cannot have been made lightly. He has to make what he believes is the right decision for his partner Elvira and two young children Jacob (2½) and Sofia (14 months).
Zebo’s father Arthur, a Martinique-born French athlete, and his mother Lynda from Cork, met in Paris, and the French-speaking Zebo has never been less than open in expressing his desire to one day play for a Top 14 club. Even so, it’s a little surprising that at 27 he didn’t sign one more deal with Munster to take him up to the 2019-20 season and with it the World Cup before then moving abroad.
Then again the market will be comparatively flooded after the World Cup, with players seeking lucrative moves abroad, especially from the Southern Hemisphere. Maybe Zebo and his advisers came to the conclusion that by moving now this was the best deal he was going to receive.
Yet one of the curious aspects of this and other deals is that under existing protocols registered agents receive 5 per cent of any contract which is renewed with an existing club or province, whereas this rises to 10 per cent for a contract with a new club. World Rugby really has to take a lead in this.
One also has some sympathy for Munster as Zebo was not centrally contracted, and they do not have the same financial muscle as Leinster.
Even so, the news is truly disappointing. Think of that back-heeled flick in Cardiff, that range of passing, those counter-attacks, the adroit finishes, the telepathic understanding with Murray.
Zeebs will be missed. Munster, and indeed Ireland, just won’t be the same without him.