Simon Zebo’s return: what it means for Irish rugby
Munster’s Head Coach Johann van Graan recently announced that Simon Zebo would return to Thomond Park next season on a co-funded deal with the IRFU. Zebo, Munster’s all-time try-scorer, will return from a two-year contract with Paris’ Racing 92 to play for his home club, where he made 144 appearances and scored 60 tries between 2010 and 2018.
Although Simon Zebo’s return to Munster next season is a given, whether he can make his way back into the Ireland squad is less clear. Joe Schmidt was in command of the international scene when Zebo left for Racing 92 in 2018, but many things have changed since then, with Andy Farrell now in control of the reigns in his second year as head coach.
In terms of rugby, joining a team like Racing 92 was ideal for him because of the style of rugby they played. He was granted complete freedom to show off his talented creativity, whether it was his offloading, long passing, clever short kicking, or his eye for the try line. A significant change of pace from Joe Schmidt’s strict and structured rugby style, which often left Zebo not feeling the love. However, Andy Farrell’s fresh coaching style promotes more dynamic quick decision play, which will hopefully allow Simon to quickly slot into an international role without the teething trouble experienced by other Schmidt Veterans.
Simon Zebo’s return to the Irish squad won’t be set in stone for the foreseeable future, especially with the likes of James Lowe and Hugo Keenan having been given a taste of the green jersey since his departure, with both showcasing varying degrees of competent performance so far, their addition to Irish roster will be extra competition for Zebo’s attempts to secure a position at full-back or on the wing.
Jonny Holland, Simon Zebo’s former Munster teammate, highlighted this on the RTE rugby podcast on Friday by saying, “ He’s coming in now challenging to get his place, which I think would be good for him I think that will create a spark and we’ll see the best out of him. But there is a lot of competition up there. I don’t like saying it, but they don’t need Simon Zebo at the moment. It’s a ‘nice to have’, and if he turns up like the Simon Zebo that was chomping at the bit and really enjoying Irish camp, then you’re going to have a selection headache on your hands because that left-wing and the full-back spot, there’s plenty of people queuing up and Hugo Keenan’s done nothing wrong.”
Simon’s possible return to international rugby will also have the added effect of breeding further competition in the Irish camp, as it prepares itself for the long and arduous journey of world cup selection; Simon Zebo’s eye on a Rugby World Cup 2023 team selection is going to place a lot of pressure on the players who are already there, which will only help the squad as a whole.
It’s still unclear what Andy Farrell’s intentions are for Zebo; whether he has any at all is another matter. The two worked together with the Lions in 2013, as well as the fact that the IRFU is officially funding his return to Ireland suggests that adding to his 35 caps is high on everyone’s list. With the Rugby World Cup just two and a half years out, Zebo’s potential comeback for Ireland presents a fascinating selection headache for Farrell.
Zebo’s desire to compete in the Rugby World Cup 2023 played a significant factor in his decision to return to Thomond Park. Staying in France or transferring to the English Premiership would have guaranteed Zebo a longer and more lucrative contract – Racing 92 did not refute claims that London Irish had shown interest in signing him.
Although in the case of Zebo, he was able to receive financial assistance from the IRFU for a one-year term, there is undoubtedly an understanding and hope on both sides that he will once again sign another contract in a year’s time. Within the current rugby climate, one-year contracts are far from uncommon, with veteran players holding an expectation of happier days ahead, often deciding to strategically lower wages for a year to aid in their full-time return down the line.
Simon Zebo’s future with Irish rugby remains uncertain, with many viewing this transfer as the conclusion of a long and illustrious career. We don’t know how much Simon has left in the tank. Still, his triumphant return, along with the hoped-for reappearance of real living, breathing, and cheering supporters, would only seem particularly appropriate for such a charismatic player and personality; with the decision to re-sign him is undoubtedly influenced by the fact that he was born to play rugby and entertain Munster crowds.