WHEN SIMON ZEBO looks at his good friend Francis Saili in the Munster changing room, he is heartened by the presence of a twice-capped All Black.
The widespread perception is that the notably greater TV rights money on offer in France and England, where clubs are also privately owned, has created a gap between those European sides and the Irish provinces.
Zebo helped to launch Munster’s alternate kit last week. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO
Ulster have signed two high-quality Southern Hemisphere Test players in the shape of Charles Piutau and Marcell Coetzee ahead of the new season, but otherwise the provinces’ recruitment from abroad has been relatively low-key.
The IRFU is increasingly insisting that resources should go to building from within the Irish system, producing more homegrown players, but there are concerns that the growing spending power of the English and French will render the provinces unable to compete in European competition.
Zebo, however, feels Irish rugby has more to offer than just money.
“The gap is definitely growing,” says the Munster man. “It’s getting quite big, but I think money is one side of the game. On the other side is tradition, success and what you want to be a part of when you’re playing the game and how you want to see yourself when you retire.
Zebo does concede that there may come a tipping point – with the new English rugby deal and France’s vastly-improved TV contract to come in 2018 – but points to the arrivals of Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber and Jean Kleyn at Munster as proof that it remains some distance away.
“There is [a tipping point],” says Zebo. “When it gets to that stage, I’m sure the IRFU will do something about it.
“Until then, we’re still signing world-class players like Francis, and the new coaching staff have brought in, by all accounts, a world-class second row [Kleyn] so the lure and attraction of playing here is still there.”
Zebo is enjoying playing with Francis Saili. Source: Lorraine O’Sullivan/INPHO
Zebo himself re-committed to Munster on a two-year deal earlier this year, despite interest from abroad, and is excited by the change of regime at the province this summer.
After a poor 2015/16 season, Erasmus has joined as director of rugby, while the highly-rated Nienaber is the new defence coach. Three-year deals for both South Africans are signs of the plans for a rebuild.
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Ireland international Zebo, who missed the South Africa tour with a knee injury, has approached this pre-season with an open mind about his new coaches.
“You wait and see for yourself, you want to get a feel for it yourself. You don’t want to be going in having already made judgements of what you expect. You want to go out and live it for yourself and enjoy it in your own way.
Nienaber coached the Springboks’ defence for the series against Ireland in June before moving to Munster and brings an extremely strong reputation with him to Limerick.