Irish rugby welcomes back folk hero Simon Zebo for the upcoming Autumn internationals after his foray in France with Racing 92.
Playing under the illuminated roof of the Paris La Défense Arena seems to have been an invaluable experience for the Cork man, but can he pick from where he left off since he last pulled on the green jersey?
Thanks to the IRFU foreign-based policy, Zebo has been prevented from playing for Ireland since he left Munster in 2017. The rule was brought into place with the intention of keeping the best Irish talent playing provincial rugby in Ireland and keeping the four provinces strong.
The degree to which this policy has succeeded is up for debate, especially with exceptions being made in the past for the likes of Johnny Sexton when he too took his own skill set overseas.
In any case Cork’s golden boy has returned home and in the words of Munster head coach Johann Van Graan “It’s as if he never left”. Now after re-establishing himself in the provincial setup and being given a call-up by Andy Farrel to the national team for the Autumn internationals, is Zebo a nailed on starter?
While at the mature age of 31, the fullback might just be past his prime, Zebo still has a lot to offer this Irish team.
During his 3 season stint at Racing 92 Zebo played 64 games and scored 25 tries, a much higher scoring percentage than any of the other candidates vying for the 15 jersey, proving the attacking threat he still possesses.
However what may prove more valuable for the returning Munster man is the experience he gained playing week in, week out at the highest level in the Top 14, whilst consistently going deep into the champions cup competition.
While giving no disrespect to the Pro 14 that the Irish provinces partake in, the skillset and intensity pales in comparison to it’s french counterpart.
Even from the average rugby viewers perspective it is easy to see the improvements in the Corkonian’s game. While Zebo never suffered from a lack of confidence he now looks more assured under the high ball, his kicking game has gone from inconsistent to reliable and his reading of the game has improved tenfold.
Thankfully in the midst of all this development Zebo has not lost his magic touch that continuously brings supporters to their feet everytime he touches the ball. Irish fans are often caught reminiscing about the fullback’s outrageous heel flick against Wales and now are foaming at the mouth in anticipation of similar antics now he is back in the squad.
While he will undoubtedly face stiff competition from the likes of Leinster’s Hugo Keenean, it is clear that Zebo possesses the talent and versatility to become a permanent feature in this current squad. Irish supporters everywhere wait with baited breath to see how Farrell will utilise his new weapon and how the prodigal son will fare on his homecoming.
Shane O Loughlin