Rugby | Zebo’s omission for the greater good?

Simon Zebo’s omission from Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad has sparked fierce debate.

The 27 year old has been left out of the squad which will face South Africa, Argentina and Fiji next month, just days after the Munster full-back announced his intentions to make the switch to France next season.

Many feel that the Cork native has been hard done by, particularly in the light of Connacht centre Bundee Aki’s inclusion under the residency rule.

But Joe Schmidt and the IRFU have made the right decision.

There is a well-known policy of showing preference to players based in Ireland, and Zebo (like Ian Madigan before him) knew the risks when he made the announcement about his future in France.

“I spoke to Joe and he explained his reasons around it,” Zebo said. “You know that could potentially happen, but it’s never easy when you’re not involved.

“If I wasn’t able to compete or didn’t think I was good enough it’d just go over my head, but it’s a level I should be at and I’ve proven I should be at it and that’s why it’s disappointing.

“I wouldn’t say regret, because I decided to be in that position.”

It is easy to feel sorry for a player who has given his all for Munster and his country, scoring nine tries in 35 appearances in the green jersey, but his omission is nothing personal.

The IRFU need to keep Ireland’s best players in Ireland, and making it clear that playing abroad will damage your international prospects is our best chance of keeping players away from the financially superior clubs in England and France.

We need to keep our best players in Ireland, and having players playing domestically also allows the IRFU to manage the players more efficiently, and we are not the only country to enforce such an unwritten rule.

Wales have recently introduced a rule whereby any foreign-based player must have 60 international caps in order to be considered for selection. It is a policy also used by Australia, and it encourages players to play in their homeland during their prime, but still allows them to pursue a foreign adventure in the twilight of their careers.

Before Wales adopted Australia’s policy, they deployed a policy called ‘Gatland’s Law,’ which allowed head coach Warren Gatland to select up to three foreign-based players.

“I understand why and I back that decision,” Dragons boss Bernard Jackman observed yesterday.

“I think it’s really important for the Irish game, to keep the provinces strong and the national team strong, to keep our best players in Ireland.

“Ninety times out of 100, the lure of the green jersey is enough to keep the players playing here.

“Joe and the IRFU in the long run are going to win by making that decision, because you’re going to keep 90% of your players here.

Johnny Sexton, the notable exception to the foreign policy rule, has admitted that he found it much more difficult to juggle club and international rugby while he spent two seasons at Racing 92.

“If I had a niggle, Racing would pull me back. I wanted to play for my country of course, but at the same time you would feel guilty because you are not playing in club games. It’s a very difficult position to be in.

“Whereas in Ireland, the IRFU look after your scheduling and you are available for all the camps. You are looked after if you have an injury.

“Everything is geared towards getting you into the best shape possible.”

The IRFU have to show strength in such matters, and too much leniency could lead to younger players eyeing up lucrative moves across the sea. Most importantly, there can be no exceptions from the rule.

Zebo, at 27, has to consider his family’s future and is perfectly entitled to seek a fresh challenge abroad, and should not be criticized too harshly for his decision.

Neither should Joe Schmidt or the IRFU.