Corkman in exile Why Simon Zebo is still the best Irish No 15 in the game right now
SINCE Andy Farrell picked up the phone to tell Rob Kearney he was no longer an international full-back last December, Ireland have been operating as a ship without its anchor.
On Saturday, Simon Zebo performed brilliantly in a Heineken Champions Cup final to serve a reminder that he is the best Irish No 15 in the game right now.
However, due to the IRFU’s policy of not picking players based abroad, the Corkman remains in exile and with Jordan Larmour injured the coach is left with a major conundrum.
In his forthcoming autobiography ‘No Hiding’, Kearney dedicates an entire chapter to the art of playing as the last man standing in the back-field.
Entitled ‘No 15’, the man who played in the position more often than any other international rugby player in the world explains his determination to win the jersey and his philosophy of how to play there.
Of the players available to Andy Farrell right now, there is no one who defines themselves so clearly as a full-back.
Shane Daly, Hugo Keenan and Jacob Stockdale have all played there at provincial level this season, while Robbie Henshaw has lined out there twice for Ireland with mixed results.
All three played for the remarkable 2016 Ireland U-20s side. When they beat New Zealand, Stockdale was at full-back, Daly was in the centre and Keenan was on the wing.
Four years on, Stockdale has won 28 caps on the wing and has scored a remarkable 16 tries. Keenan and Daly have yet to play for their country at XVs level. Kearney’s consistency is one reason Stockdale hasn’t been looked at as a No 15 before, the other is Larmour’s game-breaking ability.
Larmour was seen as Kearney’s successor and started all three Six Nations matches earlier this year. However, the 23-year-old’s work in the air remains a major question mark and, even before he dislocated his shoulder against Benetton 10 days ago, he had been relocated on to the Leinster wing in a switch with Keenan.
Keenan and Daly have both been quietly impressive in the No 15 shirt when handed the responsibility for their clubs and they’ll get a chance during this window, but it is not clear if they’re the long-term solution.
It was interesting to note that James Lowe was retained in the squad this week and his presence may shed some light on the way Farrell is thinking. Shifting Stockdale to full-back is a way of getting the exciting New Zealander into the team on the left wing, with Andrew Conway a shoo-in on the right.
There is a case for moving Conway who was an impressive No 15 in his younger days, but successive coaches have decided he’s best placed on the wing.
If Joey Carbery was fit, there’d be a case for his ball-playing skills and kicking game from the full-back position. The one man who can tick all of the boxes that Ireland need is the one they refuse to pick due to a self-imposed unofficial rule about picking players based overseas.
In his book, Kearney is hugely complimentary of Zebo who was his main rival before he chose to leave for Racing 92 in 2018.
“With the ball in hand, Simon is a really gifted footballer. He can do exceptional things that I can’t do,” Kearney writes. “The areas of the game Joe (Schmidt) put a huge level of emphasis on were areas I was strong in and Simon was a little bit weaker.”
Now that Kearney’s no longer in the frame there is no question that Zebo is the next best Irish full-back available, but Ireland will go into Saturday’s game against Italy with an untested No 15 in the hope that he’ll correct their course.