Irish Daily Mail
Zebo return can lift Munster spirits
Reclaiming prodigal son will help with identity issue
ON the face of it, there seems to be no downside to the deal which brings Simon Zebo back to Munster after three fruitful years in Paris.
The player gets to come home, just at the time that his friend Keith Earls is closing in on his try record, and perhaps play himself back into the Ireland picture to add to his remarkably low figure of 35 caps.
The province also receives a boost just when it is desperately needed. A folk hero is being welcomed back into the fold, one of Munster rugby’s most popular figures of the past decade. Zebo’s reappearance can quell some growing concerns in Limerick and Cork that the team have lost both their way and identity under Johann van Graan. The latter perception was hardly altered by the recent signing of yet another South African, Jason Jenkins.
Given that the IRFU have come to the table and dug deep for a large part of the financial package, it feels like little risk and potentially great reward for Munster. The 31-year-old has been
‘A folk hero is welcomed back into the fold’
given a year to show if he can still do it in red. If he electrifies, as we all know he can, he will get a contract extension and force his way into Andy Farrell’s plans.
There is a feeling the deal may have as much to do with the national side as Zebo’s emotional homecoming. That modest number of Ireland caps rankles somewhat, especially as he has delivered some wonderful performances in green, such as in Soldier Field back in 2016.
Many observers reckon Zebo should have been made available for selection while he was at Racing 92 and that it was absurd for Joe Schmidt and the IRFU to overlook such a gifted player because he earned his living in France, particularly given his family connection to the country.
Zebo’s last appearance for Ireland came almost four years ago on the summer tour of Japan. It beggars belief that such an attacking weapon didn’t play more often for his country, although there was a belief that he wasn’t Schmidt’s type of player, that he was a little too loose defensively, even if that area of his game did improve under the Kiwi.
So Zebo will have a sense of unfinished business when it comes to the national side. Hugo Keenan passed his recent auditions for the full-back spot with flying colours in the Six Nations, but the Corkman could be an exciting option off the bench in the final 20 minutes.
And given Zebo’s effervescent personality and popularity among the players in the dressing room, Farrell may be keen to have Zebo around, simply to lift team spirits.
Former Ireland women’s international Fiona Coghlan believes wearing the green again was part of Zebo’s thinking, as much as the emotional pull of Munster.
‘He’s obviously coming back to get back into that Irish squad,’ Coghlan said yesterday. ‘There is competition there at full-back but you wonder if the depth is there, outside Hugo Keenan. He needs to nail the place down in Munster first and I am sure he will. And when he cements his place in the Munster team and improves his fitness and work ethic, I am sure he will get back into the Ireland squad.’
Of course, there is also the small matter of returning Munster to past glories. The recent defeat to Toulouse in the Champions Cup remains raw especially as they conceded 40 points at Thomond Park. Hard to imagine sides of the past doing that. Zebo might be a reminder of what being from, and playing for, Munster means — as well as adding attacking zest.
Above all, Zebo is Munster to the bone.The red jersey’s symbolism was bred into him from an early age. A product of Presentation Brothers in Cork and the Munster academy, he became the province’s all-time leading try scorer with 60 tries in 144 appearances between 2010 and 2018. He also was their highest try scorer in Europe, breaking Anthony Foley’s record by scoring in his final game, the 2018 semi-final defeat to Racing. In his three years in Paris, Zebo has played 55 times, scoring 21 tries including two in his wonderful performance in last year’s Champions Cup final. Having been a regular in his first two seasons, he has been in and out of the team this year, only starting half of Racing’s matches.
But he remained a hot property. It is understood that there was interest from a couple of other Top 14 clubs as well as London Irish, where Zebo’s former mentor Declan Kidney is coach.
But Zebo was happy to move for less than his market value (a move that will endear him further to supporters) and, even though Munster are cash-strapped as the financial consequences of the pandemic begin to bite — evident in decisions not to offer Darren Sweetnam and JJ Hanrahan new deals — this was too good an opportunity to pass up for both the club and the player.
It’s a win-win situation all around.
Munster’s identity gets a boost at just the right time while the IRFU’s involvement means that Zebo is seen as a viable option to be on the plane to France in two years’ time. Provided, of course, we see the best of him in a red shirt again.