‘I would love to still be able to play for Ireland, but I’m not going begging’
‘I would love to still be able to play for Ireland, but I’m not going begging’

‘I would love to still be able to play for Ireland, but I’m not going begging’

Updated Jan 29th 2019, 9:19 AM

SIMON ZEBO HAS been here before, so it isn’t an entirely new experience, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier this time around.

The bottom line is that he would still dearly love to be in Carton House this week preparing for a Six Nations opener against England. His desire to play international rugby for Ireland burns as brightly now as it did when he made his debut back in 2012.

The reality, however, is different. Very different. 

Zebo pictured in Dublin yesterday in his role as Paddy Power ambassador. Source: Karen Morgan

Zebo smiles, and shakes his head, when asked if he has received any contact from Joe Schmidt since his move to Paris. Zilch. But he knew, when making the decision to leave Munster last summer, what the consequences were. Exiled. The door closed. 

“I didn’t think it would be as blunt and cold as it has been,” he says. “Like I knew I was going and I knew what was going to happen, so it’s not that big of a shock. But in terms of how blunt and cold it was, a little bit [surprised].”

While the IRFU’s policy of not selecting players who choose to play outside of the four provinces has unequivocally contributed to the current health Irish rugby finds itself in, it is still sad that a player of Zebo’s calibre has been so ruthlessly cut loose.

Them the risks.

Zebo has moved on with his new family life in Paris, where he holds no regrets over how things have panned out. The fullback has hit the ground running at Racing 92, playing with the freedom and licence he felt Schmidt’s structured game plans didn’t allow and has scored 12 tries this season, five of which have come in the Heineken Champions Cup.

His performances have earned him a nomination for the EPCR Player of the Year award, while such was his immediate impact at Racing, Zebo was named in Midi Olympique’s Team of the Year for 2018 despite only arriving during the summer.

He could not be doing any more to force Schmidt into a rethink.

“No probably not,” Zebo agrees. “In terms of fitting in with the new club and playing or having an impact as early as I have. I’ve just hit the ground running or that’s what I’ve tried to do the first couple of months and scored a few tries. Our attack is going quite well.

“I’m not going begging or anything. I’m enjoying my life and my rugby. That’s not how it really works I think. If the coach wants to keep in contact with a person to see how they are doing or whatever they put in the effort. They select a person for a squad or whatever so it can’t really come from the player saying pick me. It doesn’t work like that.

“If it did, I’d definitely pick up the phone [to Schmidt].”

Out of mind and out of sight, it seems Zebo could not be any further from Schmidt’s plans, despite the head coach previously admitting he had been keeping tabs on Irish players abroad such as Ian Madigan.

But when the Kiwi coach announced his 38-man championship panel a couple of weeks ago, he proceeded to namecheck more than two dozen players who were either unlucky to miss out on selection or were very close to breaking into the Carton bubble. Inevitably, there was no mention of Zebo. 

“That’s just probably their mindset. Once I’m gone, I’m out,” he continues.

Zebo has not heard from Schmidt since his move to Paris. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“But it was obviously different in the past when Johnny [Sexton] and people were playing abroad and they were very much keeping in contact.”

Zebo admits no provisions are going to be made for him.

“I suppose different circumstances and different personnel involved so it’s a different situation. I would obviously like to be in the thought process. I think my form would warrant that, even if there were a couple of injuries but clearly not.

“There are no bridges burnt [with Schmidt] or anything. He can go his way and I’ll go mine.”

It’s all a bit unfortunate, really.   

The Cork native had won 35 caps, the last of which came against Japan in June 2017, before seeking a new challenge in the Top 14 and it’s difficult to foresee a situation where he will come back into the selection picture if he doesn’t return to Ireland.

But, at 28, there is still plenty of road left in front of him and Zebo has certainly not given up on his international aspirations just yet, particularly when there will be a new management team in place following this year’s World Cup. 

“I’m still only 28. I have a few more years left in me. By the time this contract with Racing is finished, whether I stayed or went [elsewhere], I would still be young enough to decide what I want to do next.

“I will be 30 then. There are players who are north of 30 and still playing for Ireland.

“That decision is for further down the road, whenever it happens, there will be a lot of different factors going into that decision. More than just me playing for Ireland.

“I have two beautiful kids. I have a missus. My family, my life. Rugby is such a short window in our lives.”

The former Munster man with his children, Jacob and Sofia. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Zebo has always looked at the bigger picture and while clearly disappointed he had to sacrifice playing for Ireland to pursue a better life for his family abroad, it is not the be-all and end-all for him.

Home to spend time with family and friends this week as the Top 14 takes a three-week break, Zebo is looking forward to getting back to Cork in the coming days, while there will be a chance to put the feet up and rest in Dubai the week after. 

As of now, he won’t be going to the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, and that’s not a decision born out of bitterness, he insists, but an opportunity to instead spend the time off with family. 

“I would love to still be able to play for Ireland,” Zebo concludes. “It will probably change in the future but for now it’s not something that I’m like ‘Oh yes, I can’t play for Ireland.’

“You see them winning Grand Slams and going into the World Cup as world number two, that’s very exciting if you are playing for Ireland. But for me, I have a different excitement and a different life at the moment.

“I’m in no way holding any regrets about that.

“Even if they won the World Cup or whatever, I am so happy with my decision and with how my life is at the moment. No regrets, just positivity and I wish Ireland all the best.”

Join us to preview the Six Nations with Simon Zebo, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey on Thursday @7pm in Liberty Hall Theatre Dublin.

Click Here: Paris Saint-Germain FC Jersey Sale