Joe Schmidt tells Simon Zebo door to selection is not closed
Ireland coach says there is no hard and fast rule regarding players who move abroad
Joe Schmidt with Simon Zebo following the win over New Zealand in Chicago last November. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Joe Schmidt says he walks the streets, meets the people. And so he does. Throw a stick into the Aviva Stadium crowd and you will hit a fan with a Schmidt story that runs with a common theme ranging from the Good Samaritan to Francis of Assisi.
There is no hard and fast rule, he says. But there is a self-preservation order the IRFU has placed on itself, which is self-guiding and responds to changing terrain. Schmidt calls it future-proofing the Irish system.
Zebo is out but he could be in, while Sexton was never out and was always in. It all seems straight forward. If a player is irreplaceable, then the rules can bend around his needs. In that scenario, Zebo may well feel slightly diminished. There is no bending for the Munster player. Not yet anyway.
“The world is always changing, so you’ve got to be always looking to adapt and there’s never actually been a rule, so the flexibility is always there,” says Schmidt.
“And I know it’s imperfect, and 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. But he’s still there and my conversation with Simon was that, ‘You keep playing and keep yourself in the right shape, and there’s another squad to be named at the end of January that doesn’t necessarily discount you’.
“So the doors are more open than people think but we’ve got a responsibility to the provinces that we take really seriously, and to the rugby public, to try to keep the people here as best we can.”
Schmidt makes a strong case for the greater cause and points out that none of the players who have left Ireland have been discarded. While Ian Madigan and Marty Moore may have slipped off the radar in Bristol and Wasps, his job is to keep them involved. Madigan has 30 Irish caps, why discount that rugby intelligence?
But with the departures of both players vacancies arose at provincial and Irish level and they were filled. That natural process of replenishment has not been unkind to the Irish squad and Schmidt. There may even be a case for putting players into stress positions and making them respond to the demands.
“I said to Simon, keep playing really well. I’ve stayed in touch with Marty Moore. I’ve stayed in touch with Ian Madigan. But, in the interim, there have been some players that have stepped up.
“Are there any complaints about Tadhg Furlong replacing Marty Moore? Are there any complaints about Joey Carbery coming on and playing with aplomb for the last 20 minutes against the All Blacks in Chicago.
“We have to be as forward thinking as we can. We’ve got to try to future-proof the next two, the next six years. We want to make sure that we retain as many players as we can.”
With that forward thinking Connacht centre Bundee Aki found himself in the centre of a kerfuffle, not a shred of it his own making.
He was the counterpoint of a selection manoeuvre, that saw an Irish residency player come in and an Irish resident, Zebo, go out. In a stroke it highlighted the lead cutting edge of Schmidt and IRFU thinking.
But the selection also hit the emotive button on people’s dials and the chill winds of a post modern cliché ensued, a Twitter storm.
Aki’s wholly deserved elevation became a touchstone for all that was unfair about the Irish system and not without a biting undercurrent of xenophobia.
“I think the foreign player makes up 7 per cent of our selections in the last four years,” says Schmidt. “So I think when you put it into context, people like to focus on the very small margin and make that into a lot bigger than it is.
“But so far the players who qualify to play for Ireland make up about 6 or 7 per cent of the players who we have selected over the past four years.
“So I don’t really see it as something that is as emotional or contentious as some people would build it up to be. But then I don’t have access to everybody and there will be some people who will say that it is emotive and that they do feel strongly about it.
“I think there are other people who would say that in the past we’ve had people who have played for Ireland who never, ever lived in Ireland, who had a grandmother or a grandparent of some sort who was Irish and therefore they played for Ireland but who never, ever invested in the local community.”
It may become a moot point when the residency rule is changed to five years because, explains Schmidt, the average international career spans six years.
It will be a deterrent. But the reaction may be that risk-taking players will make their decisions at a younger age.
“With Simon it’s nothing against anything that he’s done, other than that he won’t be directly in our line of sight,” says Schmidt.
“It is a precedent,” he agrees. “That is always dangerous.”