This is awkward. There seems to be a presumption that Simon Zebo is moving from Munster to Racing 92 next season. I’ve even been called rugby’s equivalent of Tadhg Kennelly! This much I know: Simon Zebo will move to France’s Top 14 after this season. Yes, we are in the frame. But this is a fast-moving story and as late as last night I was told there are four Top 14 clubs seriously interested in acquiring his services — and more than willing to flash the cash to do so. Until his club of choice says he’s coming, until Simon signs something, there are no other facts I can confirm. I’m not being clever. Racing want Zebo, but until someone tells me otherwise, it’s no done deal.
I know playing in the Top 14 is something he’s wanted for some time and I know enough to be able to state with some certainty that this is not a money move by Simon. From talking to agents on the circuit, it was widely acknowledged that the difference between what he would have earned staying in Munster compared to offers from Top 14 clubs was insignificant — though I admit that may have changed a bit in the last 48 hours.
Having a couple of his old Munster compadres here in France did not influence his decision to leave Munster — though it might influence the destination. Once it was confirmed that he was leaving for France, the debate kicked off about the international-in-exile that he could become — and signs are that he will become after confirmation that he has been left out of Ireland’s squads for the November internationals.
Such talk is surely absolute nonsense. I don’t see any legitimate reason why Zebo won’t be involved with Ireland and I was taken aback by the exclusion from the squad yesterday. It doesn’t sit well that Bundee Aki, for all his virtues, is living in Galway for three years and he has the keys of the city while Zebo has been living in Cork for 27 years, played with Munster, represented Ireland 35 times and is now outside the circle because he has decided to continue his rugby career in France?
He’s 27, his best years are ahead of him, he is only going to get more clinical in his decision-making, and if he stays injury free he is going to improve on an upward curve until Father Time starts tap-tackling him at 32 or 33.
This is Joe Schmidt’s call, but if you are talking about 30 players going to a World Cup in two years, is there anyone who could legitimately argue he is not among the top 30 players available to the Irish head coach? I get the policy stance of the IRFU, but I also presume Ireland want to try and win the World Cup. The IRFU has every right to protect talent and keep it at home, but there is a glaring precedent there with Johnny Sexton. What is the difference between Johnny and Zeebs?
As Johnny can confirm, it isn’t easy being an overseas international in the Top 14. Recent changes in policy and approach have offered a bit of protection to French internationals, but that does not extend to internationals from other countries. France this week named its 31 ring-fenced players for their test against the All Blacks, so they won’t play next weekend, November 4 when Racing face Pau (one of Zebo’s suitors). They go into camp this Sunday, and spend a crucial week preparing. But an international player in the Top 14 is not released by their club for the equivalent camp in Ireland next week. He will play his game on November 4, get on a flight to Dublin where everyone is rested and refreshed and looking to hit the ground running at 100 mph on Monday morning. Meanwhile, our man has played a Top 14 game with the physicality levels through the roof on the Saturday night! The bulk of preparation for those tests is counted down from Day 14 to Day 7, which he would miss in total.
So there are obstacles, but the fundamental question remains: with Rob Kearney struggling for fitness at this stage, who is the best No 15 in Ireland by a country mile? Zebo is.
I had a good chat and a good look at him last Saturday in Thomond. I also met Johann van Graan for the first time. He headed off back to South Africa on Sunday having had a nice Saturday European night experience at Thomond Park. He will be ready to hit the ground running when he gets back. We’ve been picking up the bits on him in Paris from our own Patrick Lambie and Morne Steyn at Stade. The feedback is very positive, though this idea that he is ‘good on detail’ amuses me, like that is an exception for a head coach at one of the world’s leading clubs. He damn well better be good on detail!
The handover from Rassie Erasmus to van Graan should be swift and relatively painless, if hardly ideal. Erasmus won’t want to be in Limerick any longer than van Graan would want him to hang around. The new man will be looking to get his hands dirty from the moment he lands. The longer Erasmus stays around, the more awkward it is for van Graan.
Don’t feel sympathy for the players in any of this. The reality is that from the moment he returns from South Africa, the only person whose opinion matters is van Graan. He is the fella players need to impress, Erasmus is finished and his opinion doesn’t matter any more. That may sound crude but from the small bit I know about coaching, the show moves on very quickly and you soon train your eyes and ears on the new guy. You quickly forget what you did in the past — because the new coach certainly will.
The Rassie project did not end satisfactorily from the dressing room point of view, but history will be kind to him. He gave the province stability and belief. He oversaw 32 wins in 44 competitive games, losing only eight times. Of course, there were special circumstances, a time of unprecedented grief and emotion in Munster. Hence there was always going to be a big reaction from the players and the supporters after what happened to poor Axel. Such as smashing Glasgow with 14 men. Everyone had a moment of clarity, a new realisation that life is precious and that you need to make the most of it, and start playing a bit better.
That wasn’t sustainable, of course, and the emergence of Erasmus talks with South Africa was a fraught time for everyone. It could have knocked everything back to square one, but crucially they have six points from two Champions Cup games in their pocket before December’s kill or be killed back-to-back with Leicester. It appears Munster have ridden out what could have been a very sticky situation.
Last Saturday morning, I went for a walk from our hotel in Limerick and nearly ended up being blown into the Shannon. Essentially it meant Racing had to bin our game plan for Thomond Park and go back to basics. I’m not sure how many outside the ground appreciated how difficult it was for the players in the Champions Cup game. Was it a first for a Champions Cup game to be scoreless after an hour?
I warmed up with Dan Carter along the Thomond sideline. It was his first experience of a very special place. The banter was good. ‘You togging out Rog?’ Dan was relaxed but well psyched. Then he tweaked his knee in the early skirmishes and was limited in his capacity to run the show.
The first team to score took a huge psychological advantage, and Munster’s first try came from nothing — a bad kick from Machenaud, a bad choice. We could have defended their second try better. Yes, the execution was top drawer, but our tackling when Munster got their latches going in the 22 was too high. With the surface being greasy, the Munster ball carrier was getting another three or four metres slide from being fired into contact — but not if we’d taken him around the legs.
We had a great response at 14-0, got a try, but then released all the pressure in their 22 through our own inaccuracies. But how many times have I experienced that from the other side? It’s why Munster are so good at home, the crowd, the doggedness. It’s a bloody hard place to go to. Munster were good, they played the conditions well, but it was nothing I didn’t expect. They got over the line and found a way to win. Old Munster.
Zeebs will miss that.