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Zebo omitted to protect provinces but he can play his way back into Ireland shirt, says Schmidt

The Ireland head coach explained the decision to keep the Corkman out of Ireland’s November plans.

IRELAND HEAD COACH Joe Schmidt insists there is no hardline policy which prevents him from selecting players based or bound for overseas. However, a ‘but’ is never far away.

The announcement that Simon Zebo would leave Ireland last week teed up his omission from the Ireland squad for November.

It’s a difficult situation for all concerned, Zebo used the credo of ‘family first’ on Instagram after his omission was confirmed on Thursday. In a line of work offering careers that average just six or seven years long, few would begrudge the man the chance to make the most of his time on the field.

Joe Schmidt and Simon Zebo Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

For Schmidt and the IRFU though, the family they have to put first are their four provincial children. There is no competing with the financial muscle – which Schmidt refers to as ‘the differential’ – of clubs in the Top 14, so at times like this the union have to use the most powerful weapon they have. International caps.

“What we have done is try to back ourselves to keep people in the country as best we can. (Zebo) is gone to Racing 92 which means he’s in a country of 65 million people and 30 professional rugby teams, it’s economies of scale. We can’t necessarily compete, but we have our own eco-system here that we tend to be able to hang on to the vast majority of players.”

Asked if Zebo’s omission from the national squad means that there is now a rule and precedent in place to stop overseas players lining out in green, Schmidt said:

“There is no policy. There is only an intention from the IRFU to best protect the provinces and the local game. We believe that the best way to do that is to select from within Ireland.

“The other real advantage is that selecting within Ireland, the players can be better managed.”

While the Kiwi insists that there is room for Zebo to play his way back into an Ireland jersey in future, there is clearly an inconsistency in the application of the non-rule as Jonathan Sexton was a high-profile exile who managed to play concurrently in France and for Ireland.

Joe Schmidt Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Times have changed, clearly. The union are faced with greater competition for their players from abroad and must make a firmer stand to retain them. Throw in the fact that David Nucifora was recruited while Sexton was already in Paris and a touch of culpability from Schmidt and there is a sense that even Johnny Sexton might not fit through the ‘Johnny Sexton loophole’ if he decided to go for a second soujourn in France.

“I think at the time, I was new into the job,” admits Schmidt as he looks back on the 2013 selection of Sexton.

“To set a rugby team up in the space of a week is an incredibly difficult job. To have a thought process that is very similar to the guy that was running the team was, as much as anything, a real convenience to me going into a new job. That was a part of Johnny’s selection.

“He is also proven to be, over the last two Lions tours, the starting player in a Lions test match. Zeebs has been great for us, but he hasn’t reached the same level of selection in those terms.

“Since Johnny left, Simon would be as high-profile as anyone has been. That’s why it is tough for us and it’s tough for people to accept.

“I do accept that people are disappointed because I am amongst those people. Is it emotive? It is for me because I’ve got massive respect for Simon, not just as a rugby player. He is an incredibly likeable young man. It is difficult for me as well.

But I have a responsibility to try to think as broadly as I can and try to future-proof as best I can what we think the picture will be over the next two, over the next six years and the risks inherent in selecting people who have signed elsewhere.”

There’s another strand to Zebo’s omission which is important to touch on. He has been put aside nine months before he leaves the system that reared him. Meanwhile, slotting in to Carton House and perhaps a starting jersey will be Connacht’s brilliant centre Bundee Aki, newly qualified having previously been non-committal to Ireland’s call.

It’s not a slight on Aki or any project player, it’s just far from ideal that Zebo happens to be pushing the other side of the revolving door.

Bundee Aki Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

As an adopted son of Ireland himself, Schmidt believes that the rancour around residency-qualified players shouldn’t be an issue. He feels presence and investment in community should be the source of an identity rather than a place of birth.

“People like to focus on the very small margin and make that into a lot bigger than it is, but so far the players who qualify to play for Ireland make up round about 6 or 7% of the players we have selected over the past four years,” says Schmidt.

“I think there are other people who would say that in the past we’ve had people who have played for Ireland who never, ever lived in Ireland, who had a grandmother or a grandparent of some sort who was Irish and therefore they played for Ireland but who never, ever invested in the local community.

“I don’t think I’ve seen someone invest more in the local community than some of the people who have qualified to play.”

I think it’s never going to be perfect and it’s hard for me to say that it’s perfect, because I qualify as an Irish citizen, I’ve lived here for seven years now – well, a total amount of nine years – and we love the place. Does that mean we’re any less Irish?

“It probably does because my accent is a bit weird. But I still think we’ve tried to invest in our local community as best as we can and our kids are very much invested in what they’re doing at university and secondary school, and I see very similar things happening with some of the players we have qualified.”

Schmidt started off by pinning an ‘opportunity’ label on this post-Zebo period for Ireland.

On paper, the Corkman’s absence is set to lead to continued reliance on Rob Kearney as fullback, but Schmidt also points out the younger blood that is pumping towards the back three places. Talent, that will have a greater chance to flourish without Munster’s prolific try-scorer around to fill a jersey.

“What we’ve got to do is roll our sleeves up as best we can. We’ve got 19 Test matches before the build-up to the World Cup. Simon’s had 35 Tests and we know a lot about him. This is an opportunity for some of the other players: We’re excited about Jacob Stockdale trying to build on what he did in Japan and his good early season form. Keith Earls was as good as we’ve ever seen him in Japan.

Joe Schmidt and Simon Zebo celebrate winning Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“We’ve tried to keep a bit of experience with Rob Kearney at 15, Dave Kearney’s back in the mix, but also Adam Byrne and Darren Sweetnam.”

The more Schmidt speaks about Zebo, the more he leaves a lingering sense that the Munster star may well win more Test caps. However,  events of recent weeks would lead to a logical conclusion that he won’t, not to mention the numerous ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ around any possible return.

If Zebo plays out of his skin. But perhaps not if an Ireland-based player is a suitable alternative.

“As I said to Simon, keep playing really well. I’ve stayed in touch with Marty Moore. I’ve stayed in touch with Ian Madigan. But, in the interim, there have been some players that have stepped up.

“Are there any complaints about Tadhg Furlong replacing Marty Moore? Are there any complaints about Joey Carbery coming on and playing with aplomb for the last 20 minutes against the All Blacks in Chicago?

“We always look historically at what someone has done for the team and I would be incredibly impressed by what Simon has done for Irish rugby. But we have to be as forward thinking as we can.

“We’ve got to try to future-proof the next two, the next six years, because we’re still trying to fight that zenith that still could be the Rugby World Cup here.

“We want to make sure that we retain as many players as we can.”

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