Zebo has ‘zero regrets’ over his Paris move
The Racing 92 wing tells Mick Cleary that missing an Ireland World Cup place will be ‘no big deal’
Simon Zebo is in the appropriate city when he invokes the “no regrets” refrain of the Parisian songwriter to assess his move to the French capital in the summer, a switch that caused him to miss out on Ireland’s groundbreaking victory over world champions New Zealand.
Zebo watched from afar, exiled from Joe Schmidt’s selection plans but wholly at ease with his decision to leave his native Munster for high-rolling Racing 92, the glitzy, rock-and-roll artists of the French scene with their cosmopolitan squad and purpose-built indoor U-arena where they are looking to consolidate their unbeaten start to Pool 4 against Leicester tomorrow.
Zebo, true to his wandering inclinations, is completely at home in his new surroundings, even if it does effectively remove him from international consideration.
“I have absolutely zero regrets and I am so, so happy that I made the decision,” said Zebo. “One 80-minute match [Ireland v New Zealand] would not make any difference to that, delighted as I was for the Irish lads. It has been an incredible adventure here. I wouldn’t be holding my breath about Ireland prospects and there has not been much contact. Of course, it would be nice to go to the World
Cup but it is what it is. I’m not at all hopeful or expectant and it is no big deal for me.”
Ireland have no exclusion policy as regards picking players from outside the country. In fact, Schmidt selected flyhalf Johnny Sexton when he was with Racing three years ago.
Zebo, who won the last of his 35 caps in 2017, is committed to a fresh challenge, buoyed no doubt by a salary of around £600,000, an offer Munster and the Irish Rugby Football union could not match. There is a real sense, however, that the 27-year-old was eager to fly the nest and make his own distinctive way in the world.
With a father, Arthur, from Martinique, Zebo was already a partial French speaker and has settled easily into Parisian life with
his partner, Elvira, and young children, Jacob and Sofia. Even the protests of recent weekends have not proved too troublesome, although Champions Cup officials are monitoring events in Paris ahead of tomorrow’s match. “There’s been a bit of trouble, cars burned out and a few fights with the police everywhere,” said Zebo. “But as for the rugby set-up, it’s out of this world. Great environment, fabulous stadium with its 4G pitch and reliable conditions, and world-class players. There is blunt force as well as massive subtlety. It’s all gone like a dream.” As it has for Racing team-mate, Scotland fly-half Finn Russell, a kindred spirit in terms of his outlook on the game. The pair have added significantly to the Parisians’ prowess as they set their sights on a two-pronged attack on the Top 14 and Champions Cup. Racing have been losing European finalists in two of the last three years, to Saracens in 2016 and Leinster in Bilbao seven months ago. Zebo knows only too well that feeling of what some call near-achievement and others, with a competitive zeal, term failure. Zebo reached the semi-final four times with Munster and lost on each occasion, latterly and tellingly to Racing 92 in Bordeaux in April.
“It is real goal of mine to try and win the Champions Cup,” said Zebo. “The Racing boys have a hunger to go all the way. We’ve got a deep enough squad to compete on two fronts and the ambition is to be double champions.
“It’s been great with Finn. We clicked from the get-go. We both like to try things no matter where we are on the pitch. It’s a matter of staying close to him. Things tend to happen around him.”
A chastened Tigers travel to Paris, on their uppers after a humiliating 41-10 defeat at Bristol last weekend. The match has a make-or-break feel about it.
“This is a big fixture for both teams,” said Zebo. “Leicester will come here as a wounded beast and that can make them dangerous. But we want to build on what we have done so far in Europe. Another win would put us in great stead and that’s what we are striving for.”
Looking forward: Racing 92’s Simon Zebo bursts through against Lyon