Munster may have struggled on the pitch this season, but it has been a positive few weeks away from it.
Yesterday’s news Simon Zebo has penned a new contract to remain at the province through to the summer of 2018 has followed on from the deals signed in January by Conor Murray, Keith Earls, James Cronin and Mike Sherry.
Talk of an exodus can officially be decommissioned.
Zebo had been linked with a move to a handful of French Top 14 clubs, with Pau among the supposed front-runners, but this decision by the exciting and versatile back is another nail in the coffin for the idea French and English largesse would lure a plethora of Irish players away.
Munster coach Anthony Foley admitted: “Simon’s record speaks for itself and keeping a player with his experience and versatility is key to our plans going forward so we are delighted that he has committed his future to Munster.”
The 25-year-old has made 96 Munster appearances, the first of which came as a sub-academy player against Connacht at the Sportsground in April 2010. After one year in the full academy programme the winger and full-back secured a senior contract at the beginning of the 2011/12 season and made his European debut against Scarlets at Parc Y Scarlets in December 2011.
On the international front the Cork-man won 21 Irish caps, scoring seven tries, and was a tourist with the Lions in Australia in 2013.
In making his Ireland debut against New Zealand in Eden Park in June 2012, more recently Zebo started in four of the five games during Ireland’s 6 Nations title defence in 2015 and made three appearances at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Yesterday’s news dropped shortly after Zebo’s former teammate Felix Jones had been asked about the decision facing the man from Cork with the now retired full-back explaining the choices facing players in that scenario.
“He has got to do what is best for him and if that is going away or if it is staying at home I can’t make that decision for him. I wouldn’t be advising him. Obviously I’d like him to stay at Munster, as a friend. I’m not going to sit here and advise anyone on their contracts or their life decisions.
“Look, you have heard Conor (Murray) say guys get looked after very well here. Johnny (Sexton) has said it many times about the benefits of staying in Ireland. Then, on the other side of it, there are massive benefits of going away, very lucrative deals and lifestyle experiences.”
Such commitments by current stars are reassuring but Munster are still some way short of where they need to be on the field even if Jones was tetchy when asked about what he made of the criticisms of his old province.
“They’re in a tough place in terms of consistency,” he said eventually. “We lost a lot of guys over the last couple of years and it’s frustrating because a lot of them know what they themselves and the team around them are capable of doing and not doing it consistently.
“But having said that, this is how you build resilience. No team, no player, is born being perfect time and time again. You have to have failure to progress. Other than the All Blacks, I can’t think of any player or team that’s perfect the whole time.”
Jones is one of those leaders to have been lost to the dressing-room. Head coach Anthony Foley has spoken about the effect the Dubliner had in the team environs though Jones himself is adamant that the sanctuary he left behind is still replete with generals.
CJ Stander, Conor Murray and Earls are among the main men still there though there is no doubt all the provinces could benefit hugely by the arrival of one or two more top-class southern hemisphere heavyweights.
If Jones had a preference it would be for a provincial team made up exclusively of home grown Irish players, but isn’t blind to the positive effect an outsider like Doug Howlett or Isa Nacewa can have on a club’s squad.
“Doug was probably the best player I played with and not just in terms of his playing ability, in terms of him as a person. He’s just an incredible person.
“I wouldn’t have known that immediately but you do get a sense (of what he adds). The first time I met him I had to room with him in pre-season and Doug was just an exceptional guy, I don’t know if anyone will ever be able to come into Munster and have the same effect that he had and still does have.
“FIt’s just that those guys are hard to come by. You have a few guys who are like Doug Howlett, Isa Nacewa, Brad Thorn – they’re all good people as well as good players and it’s getting the combination of the two that’s hard to come by.”
* Former Irish International Felix Jones was speaking at the announcement of Electric Ireland’s 2016 sponsorship of the Under 20’s Rugby Six Nations Home Games, Donnybrook.