Munster and the IRFU have confirmed that Simon Zebo has signed a one-year contract to return to play with the province for the 2021/22 season.
This co-funded contract will see Munster’s all-time record try scorer return from Racing 92 and line out for his home club where he made 144 appearances and scored 60 tries, making him the province’s all-time record try scorer, between 2010 and 2018.
Now in his third season with Racing, Zebo has played 55 times and scored 21 tries for the Parisians. The 31-year-old product of PBC Cork and the Munster academy has scored 32 tries in 61 Champions Cup games for Munster and Racing, making him the fourth most prolific try scorer in the competition’s history.
Head coach Johann van Graan said: “The opportunity to bring Simon back to Munster came about in early April following a final review of our squad’s budgetary position for season-end and with assistance from the IRFU to support what we believe is a really good deal for Munster and Irish rugby.
“Simon’s desire to return to Ireland and play with his home club is illustrated by his willingness to sign at a level below his market value elsewhere. This has made bringing the province’s all-time leading try scorer back home, possible.”
Zebo said: “I am thrilled and honoured to be coming back home to play for Munster. My family and I have been so lucky to have enjoyed three incredible years with Racing 92 in Paris and I cannot thank the team there enough, I really have made friends for life and take with me some brilliant memories.
“However, as everyone knows, Munster holds a very special place in my heart and I’ve always said that I wanted to play for them and potentially Ireland again, so when this opportunity arose the lure of being close to home, family and friends and Munster fans, it outweighed all other options. I cannot wait to get back to the HPC with the team and hopefully a packed Thomond Park.”
The re-signing of such a popular player among team-mates and fans will be a timely fillip for the province and its supporters.
There was interest from other French clubs and London Irish, whose head coach Declan Kidney gave the player his Irish debut against the All Blacks in Auckland in 2012. Munster are also, of course, more hard pressed financially than ever in light of the pandemic, as evidenced by the decision not to offer JJ Hanrahan and Darren Sweetnam new contracts. But in light of CJ Stander turning down a new central contract, the IRFU helped to smooth Zebo's return and it is likely that a new deal will be forthcoming before the next year is out to ensure he finishes his career with his native province.
While there have been attractions to staying in France or moving to London, Munster clearly had the greatest emotional pull for Zebo. Furthermore, returning to Munster would potentially offer Zebo the opportunity to force his way back into the Irish team, a prospect which might be all the more tempting given the 2023 World Cup is in France.
He played the last of his 35 Tests for Ireland, scoring nine tries, in the summer tour to Japan in 2017.
Zebo’s parents, Lynda and Arthur, met in Paris where she was holidaying with a friend and he had moved from his native Martinique, so moving to the French capital and playing for Racing always made sense. Returning there with Ireland at the next World Cup would have to be a very tempting objective.
Casting a glance toward this point in his career last April, Zebo told The Irish Times: “I’d imagine it would be Racing or Munster. They’re the two teams in my head. Neither of them might want me, I could want to new seek pastures elsewhere, you never know, because rugby doesn’t last forever so every experience is really important. We’ll have to see, but at the moment it would be Paris or Cork.
“It was definitely a dream come true to represent my country 35 times and every single time meant something special,” he also said, and admitted: “I’d love to play for Ireland again.”