Joe Schmidt Opens Up On Selecting Johny Sexton While In France But Overlooking Simon Zebo

The jersey.

Former Ireland boss Joe Schmidt has opened up on why he selected Johnny Sexton while he was playing in France with Racing 92 but chose to overlook Simon Zebo as soon as he signed for the Parisian side.

Schmidt was named Ireland coach in 2013, just weeks before Sexton packed his bags and left Leinster but the New Zealander knew him all too well having coached him for three seasons at the eastern province.

And he said given the timeline of events, he had to select Sexton because there was no one else at the time that he felt could slot in at outhalf for Ireland and “run the game” the way he wanted.

Schmidt says had Sexton left two years ago it probably would have been a different story,

“I think if Johnny had gone over two years ago I don’t think he would have been picked,” Schmidt said at his Joe Schmidt: In Conversation event at the University of Limerick on Thursday night to promote the launch of his new book.

“I was just coming into the team, I had coached Johnny for three years, I rated him and I had a relationship with him where I knew he could run the game and knew what we needed to get done. He had huge respect.

“So when he went to Paris… ROG [Ronan O’Gara] was finished and we probably didn’t have someone who could immediately step into that breach and because I needed to transition in.

“But the longer I was there the less likely it became that someone was going to get picked from the outside.”

He also admitted that he travelled down to Limerick before Zebo signed with Racing to try and convince him not to go. Schmidt said he doesn’t begrudge Zebo for leaving but said once the former Munsterman decided he was going, he couldn’t select him because Ireland needed to “safeguard” the jersey.

The same goes for former Munster lock Donnacha Ryan who left for Racing a year before Zebo.

“I drove down to Limerick one day and I sat with Zeebs and pleaded with him not to go. I said ‘Zeebs you’ve just really solidified yourself in the team as the left-winger’,” Schmidt said.

“But in the end, he decided to go for his family, for the experience and the fact that he had the French language that you needed. And I didn’t begrudge him that, but the danger was if I picked Simon and Donnacha Ryan who left as well… If I had picked those two then someone else would go ‘Well I might take more money and go to France as well.’

“And then this Saturday when you go to Thomond Park to watch Munster play Saracens – you don’t have the same team. You don’t have the same team because they know they can have their cake and eat it too.

“Part of our belief was were here to safeguard that jersey and if we don’t safeguard that jersey then there are economies of scale that we can’t compete with, whether that be in the Premiership or in France.

“And really there’s only ourselves and the All Blacks who are continuing to do that. England are now doing it since Eddie Jones came in. Steffon Armitage didn’t get picked when he was a bit of a form player in Europe. And there was unrest about that.”

But Schmidt did note that while Zebo would likely come straight back into the Irish frame if he returns, his replacement Jacob Stockdale hasn’t exactly done a bad job on the wing.

“There is potential that Zeebs might come back and I think he will put himself straight back in the frame. But while he has been away a young kid, Jacob Stockdale, another left-footer, has gone onto the left-wing and done a pretty good job,” Schmidt said.

“And while he had a bit of second-season syndrome this year, his first year was… you know he broke the record for tries in a Six Nations. He scored that freakish try against the All Blacks, and he’s 22, 23 years old. So he has got a big future in the game.”

One thing though that has always come up is Zebo’s style and how it didn’t exactly fit into Schmidt’s style of play. But the New Zealander said he rates Zebo very highly and reckons he could be back in and Ireland jersey before long under new boss Andy Farrell if he returns home.

“You want to help them get the best out of themselves and Zeebs, some of the things he could do were exceptional. So you want to get the best of those,” Schmidt said.

“You talk about that game in Chicago [against New Zealand], he had a cracking game that day. His chip over the top to set-up Conor Murray’s big impact on Julian Savea to get that scrum – we don’t get that try through Robbie Henshaw if Zeebs hadn’t done that pinpoint kick you know?

“Those sorts of things, he had the kicking skills, the passing skills, the offloading skills, he had the speed, maybe not quite the top-end speed that some of the other players have got but he glided.

“So there were lots of really positive aspects to his play. I don’t waste two hours driving down to meet someone and two hours driving back.

“And I would have stayed in touch a little bit with him, not so much over the last 12 months because he wasn’t going to be available to us.

“If he comes back at the start of next season I’d say Faz [Andy Farrell] will undoubtedly have a chat with him and then he’ll make a decision about selection like any other player.”

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