Gerry Thornley: Simon Zebo’s return looks like good business all round
The 31-year-old has a few more rugby itches to scratch and plenty to motivate him
Racing 92’s Simon Zebo is tackled by Ben Tapuai of Harlequins during the Heineken Champions Cup match at the Twickenham Stoop in December. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
It is a measure of Simon Zebo’s desire to not only reclaim his place in the Munster jersey but the Irish one as well that he has, as Johann van Graan said on Wednesday, agreed to return home for a salary that is less than his market value.
There is no doubt that Zebo could have secured both longer and more remunerative deals by staying in France or moving to the Premiership – Racing 92 did not deny reports that London Irish as well as Munster had expressed an interest in signing him.
Then again, one-year deals are not unusual in the current climate. Many players in all four provinces have agreed to reduced salaries for one year in the hope that there will be better times ahead.
With regard to Zebo, whose one-year deal was financially assisted by the IRFU, there undoubtedly an understanding and desire on all sides that he will sign another contract in a year’s time. This has all the feel of a final chapter to Zebo’s playing career.
If Zebo didn’t pick the most financially opportune moment to come home, he certainly picked the most remunerative time to leave and join a club like Racing 92. When he decamped to Paris three years ago, it was a season before the World Cup, after which the international transfer market was always going to be at its highest four-yearly point.
Zebo was 28. His valued was at its highest. He wasn’t feeling the love from Joe Schmidt and it was always an itch that Zebo was likely to scratch. Zebo’s parents, Lynda and Arthur, met in Paris where she was holidaying with a friend and where he had moved from his native Martinique. He has always been part French and always will be. Aside from knowing the words to Les Marseillaise, Zebo has always had sufficient command of the language to make the switch to Paris more seamless.
From a rugby perspective, joining a club like Racing 92, given the brand of rugby they played, suited him to the hilt. He was given full rein to express his creativity, be it his offloading, long passing or wicked short kicking, as well as his eye for the try line. The years haven’t dimmed his finishing ability, for in his 58 games for Racing he has scored 32 tries.
He has started all bar three of Racing’s 20 Heineken Champions Cup games, when injured each time, and his brace in last October’s 31-27 final defeat by Exeter took his tally in the competition to 32, fourth on the all-time list behind Brian O’Driscoll (33), Vincent Clerc (36) and Chris Ashton (40).
Zebo has never expressed his regret over the move and he and his young family have clearly had a ball over the last three years. He has, as he put it on Wednesday, enjoyed an experience which will live with him fondly and made friendships for life.
Now comes the chance to bring Elvira, Jacob (five), Sofia (four) and the Parisian-born Noah (one) back to Cork and be closer to his parents and extended family, and scratch a few more rugby itches, for he has plenty to motivate him.
For starters there is helping Munster to win a trophy. Zebo remains the province’s leading try scorer of all time with 60 in 144 appearances, albeit Van Graan and Stephen Larkham will have an array of back three options at their disposal given the presence of Keith Earls, Andrew Conway and Mike Haley, who has probably had his best season since ostensibly being acquired to replace Zebo.
There’s also Shane Daly, who can also play outside centre, but is now an international who didn’t even make the matchday 23 for the Guinness Pro14 final or Toulouse quarter-final, as well as Liam Coombes, Calvin Nash, Matt Gallagher and Seán French, newly promoted from the academy, not to mention the academy and Sevens flyer Conor Phillips.
Nevertheless, no less than Ian Costello’s appointment as Munster academy manager from his role as Wasps defence coach (rather overshadowed on the day that was in it) bringing Zebo home has to be considered good business for Munster.
There’s also the carrot of playing for Ireland again, and particularly the possibility of playing at the 2023 World Cup in France. That would be a huge spur for Zebo, all the more so after missing out on the matchday 23 in the 2015 pool decider against France and the quarter-final against Argentina, as well as the 2019 tournament altogether.
As Andy Farrell was the defence coach in the latter years of the Schmidt era, Zebo will have to provide compelling evidence that he has some serious Test rugby left in him.
But then there’s also the stardust he’ll sprinkle over Thomond Park, Musgrave Park and hopefully the Aviva Stadium and elsewhere.
For some curious reason, given his X factor as a player, his good-natured personality on and off the field, not to mention his generosity and work for charity, no player seems to polarise opinion among rugby supporters more than Zebo, if largely outside Munster, where he had been the most popular among the Thomond Park and Musgrave Park faithful.
For such an exciting player and effervescent personality, his prodigal return allied to the hoped for return of actual real, live, breathing, cheering and singing supporters would seem particularly apt. The man was born to play rugby and to entertain, and that was no doubt part of the appeal for Munster in re-signing him.
He’s different, but that should be celebrated, and if nothing else, Munster, the Pro16 and Irish rugby is about to become at least a little more interesting.