He said often enough that he wanted to play abroad someday, but the official confirmation still came as a shock.
Seven years on from making his debut as a raw, zippy winger, Munster and the IRFU today officially announced that Simon Zebo would be leaving his home province at the end of the season.
The rumours had been circulating in the last week or two, but it still just felt like agent-bait. 18 months ago the same rumours were floating around. They came to nothing. In February 2016, he signed on for another two years, and France and England and speculation were all put to bed for the time being.
He was rarely coy about his future though. Any time the question was asked where his playing days would take him – be it France or England – he gave the straight answer. Someday he was probably going to seek a new challenge.
The exact location of that new challenge is yet to be revealed, but it’s likely the offers are on the table, or indeed signed already. From a bargaining perspective, he wouldn’t be showing his cards before the bets are made.
France has often been mentioned, and for reasons other than money. He may ooze Cork, but he didn’t lick his French flair off a stone. His father is a Martinique-born French athlete, with Simon speaking the language fluently. He’s spoken in the past about watching Ireland-France games as a kid with his old man decked out in blue. Depending on the occasion, the younger Zebo’s loyalties could waver.
Pau were among those mentioned in recent weeks, a club which mirrors Zebo’s own lineage, given their strong Munster connection. His former Munster backs coach Simon Mannix now runs the show there, with his former teammates Dave Foley, Sean Dougall and Paddy Butler also on the books.
But Zebo’s form over the last two years would indicate Pau are just one of many options, both in France and England. Less than 48 hours ago against Racing 92 he almost inspired the best try Thomond Park had seen since its redevelopment 10 years ago. Racing onto Ian Keatley’s delicate chip over the top, in one swoop Zebo drew in the last defender, before whipping the ball around his back towards Keith Earls. Earls was away, but the ball slipped from his grasp.
Who knows, he might have been showing his future employers and teammates a taste of what’s to come.
His decision to leave won’t have been taken lightly. With enormous back-three depth at Joe Schmidt’s disposal, the likely outcome is that his International career is over, or at least on hold. Zebo may have had a green jersey for the last couple of years, but one injury would have put him back in the queue.
Money is a likely factor, and an understandable one at that. The bigger collisions are causing bigger injuries, and a professional rugby career is becoming more fickle than ever. As he referenced in today’s statement, he has a family to support. And at 27-years-old, his earning capacity is arguably at its peak.
“It has always been my dream to play for my home club, wearing the red jersey while representing my family, friends and local community.
“However, I have always noted the draw to play abroad one day, and in not taking this decision lightly I have decided on what’s best for my family. With my partner Elvira and two young children, Jacob and Sofia, we are planning for our future and this is the right time for us to make the move.”
If he never returns to the province, he’s already cemented his legacy. The Munster team he broke into was on its last legs after a decade of success, and with the likes of Keith Earls, Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony, he’s helped carry the province through a harsh transition, to the point where they’re once again mixing with the big boys.
It does provide incoming head coach Johan van Graan with his first major challenge though, before he’s even got his visa. However, time is on van Graan’s side, with seven months of the season still ahead for him to work on bringing in a replacement, or at least on moulding one from the inside.