No Exception For Zebo As He’s Not On Sexton’s Level Says Schmidt
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Joe Schmidt has spoken out for the first about his decision to immediately drop Simon Zebo for the Irish set-up, after the Munster star revealed he would be leaving for France at the end of the season.
His decision came as a huge surprise, especially with Zebo having finally nailed down a spot in Schmidt’s team over the last 18 months or so, and with the Rugby World Cup just two years away.
Zebo is the highest profile player to leave these shores since Johnny Sexton, who Ireland famously made an exception for, Schmidt says unfortunately Zebo just isn’t on that level to still be in contention.
Speaking at the Guinness Storehouse ahead of the Rugby Writers of the Ireland awards this week, Schmidt said:
“At the time, I was new into the job,” Schmidt said of his decision to pick Sexton when he was based in France.
“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.
“I guess the risk is a really high-profile player does go and then you’ve got to make a decision.
“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.
“It’s a balance. I don’t think there has to be a massive injury crisis at all. Form will still be a pretty big dictator come the Six Nations.”
In terms of a selection policy, Schmidt says there isn’t an official one, but he will continue to only select players based in Ireland for the foreseeable future.
“There is no policy,” he said.
“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. We already know that.
“There’s one player (Sexton) who went to Racing 92 and was played for the first 12 games in the season, and I’m not sure he’s ever had the same resilience since then.
“So we’re looking to manage our players, we’re looking to add to the longevity of our players. At the same time we’re trying to support the provinces.
“The status quo has actually served us really well. But the world is always changing, so you’ve got to be always looking to adapt and there’s never actually been a rule, so the flexibility is always there.
“The best comparison for us in terms of a similar-size country is Wales, but rugby is the national sport there and it is steeped in tradition in Wales that is embedded in the communities there. And you see the number of their high-profile players that have leaked.
“It’s more than a trickle there, and we’re trying our best to try to avoid that happening.
The Ireland boss cites Sexton’s stint in France as a perfect example of can happen Irish players when they move abroad and how difficult it becomes for him to pick them. The heavy workload he was put under while at Racing has had a detrimental effect on his fitness ever since he returned home.
“It’s pretty self evident,” he said.
“He hasn’t played 12 games in a row since then and that’s because: you pick up the wear and tear and it’s hard then to get that back. The wear and tear is something that, you can get a long rest and bounce back, and Johnny’s had a few rests and he has bounced back.
“What you tend to do as a more experienced player, is you tend to manage your time a little bit better. But in this country you get that opportunity a lot more.
“It was the same with Paul O’Connell. I think he really extended his career by staying. He got himself in the right shape, his time was managed and there are players who have taken up that opportunity.”
All quotes via The Irish Independent.