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'Money is one side of the game. On the other side is tradition' - Zebo

The Munster wing feels a Pro12 trophy or European exploits are on the cards this season.

WHEN SIMON ZEBO looks at his good friend Francis Saili in the Munster changing room, he is heartened by the presence of a twice-capped All Black.

The widespread perception is that the notably greater TV rights money on offer in France and England, where clubs are also privately owned, has created a gap between those European sides and the Irish provinces.

Simon Zebo Zebo helped to launch Munster's alternate kit last week. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ulster have signed two high-quality Southern Hemisphere Test players in the shape of Charles Piutau and Marcell Coetzee ahead of the new season, but otherwise the provinces’ recruitment from abroad has been relatively low-key.

The IRFU is increasingly insisting that resources should go to building from within the Irish system, producing more homegrown players, but there are concerns that the growing spending power of the English and French will render the provinces unable to compete in European competition.

Zebo, however, feels Irish rugby has more to offer than just money.

“The gap is definitely growing,” says the Munster man. “It’s getting quite big, but I think money is one side of the game. On the other side is tradition, success and what you want to be a part of when you’re playing the game and how you want to see yourself when you retire.

You see Francis, who has had many opportunities to sign with English clubs or French clubs but decided to come here because of what Munster Rugby is all about. No matter how big money gets, once the gap is not too big, the players will find Irish provinces and Irish rugby very attractive.”

Zebo does concede that there may come a tipping point – with the new English rugby deal and France’s vastly-improved TV contract to come in 2018 – but points to the arrivals of Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber and Jean Kleyn at Munster as proof that it remains some distance away.

“There is [a tipping point],” says Zebo. “When it gets to that stage, I’m sure the IRFU will do something about it.

“Until then, we’re still signing world-class players like Francis, and the new coaching staff have brought in, by all accounts, a world-class second row [Kleyn] so the lure and attraction of playing here is still there.”

Simon Zebo celebrates scoring a try Zebo is enjoying playing with Francis Saili. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Zebo himself re-committed to Munster on a two-year deal earlier this year, despite interest from abroad, and is excited by the change of regime at the province this summer.

After a poor 2015/16 season, Erasmus has joined as director of rugby, while the highly-rated Nienaber is the new defence coach. Three-year deals for both South Africans are signs of the plans for a rebuild.

Ireland international Zebo, who missed the South Africa tour with a knee injury, has approached this pre-season with an open mind about his new coaches.

“You wait and see for yourself, you want to get a feel for it yourself. You don’t want to be going in having already made judgements of what you expect. You want to go out and live it for yourself and enjoy it in your own way.

That’s what we’ve done as a squad and as soon as [Erasmus] has come in the enthusiasm and excitement has gone up. Jacques on the defensive side since he’s come in, everybody is raving about him and fingers crossed it should be a great game for us.”

Nienaber coached the Springboks’ defence for the series against Ireland in June before moving to Munster and brings an extremely strong reputation with him to Limerick.

“Yeah, he’s done a few things differently,” says Zebo when asked about Nienaber. “He just has a different philosophy on defence. It’s not that it’s better or worse, it’s just different.

“A change is always going to be good for us considering we didn’t do as well as we did in the past couple of year, so we’re looking forward to implementing the new game plan and systems and letting the players drive it on and just focus on performance.”

Simon Zebo scores a try Zebo scored seven tries for Munster last season. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

With a new staff – which also includes Felix Jones as a technical coach – Zebo is positive about the prospects for Munster in 2016/17. There has not been an overhaul of the playing squad this summer, but the 26-year-old believes the quality is there to achieve something big.

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“Last year there were no excuses, it was just a bad year and bar Connacht no province had a great year,” says Zebo.

“We just need to focus on what we can do and that is the performance on the pitch and go out and deliver this year because we haven’t won a trophy regularly enough for what we’d consider acceptable, so to win something this year or do something special in Europe is on the agenda.”

Zebo is also hopeful that an improvement on the pitch for Munster will lead to bigger attendances at Thomond Park and Musgrave Park.

“We don’t blame the fans at all,” says Zebo. The past few seasons have been tough, very tough for us [players] too.

“They were excellent a couple of years prior but our performances have let them down and we need to repay them and get them back cheering for us. I’d be confident that we can do that this year because we’re going to be playing a good style of rugby and fingers crossed we’ll be getting a lot more wins.

“That’s what we demand of ourselves and the fans demand it as well.”

Munster Rugby and adidas have launched the new Munster Rugby Alternate jersey which is available only at Life Style Sports, along with all Munster Rugby training kit and supporter’s wear. See www.lifestylesports.comand/or #MunsterRising for further details.

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