Ulster must stop their Ireland stars being lured away, warns captain
Ulster skipper Rory Best believes ensuring that his side's front-line players are not lured away by the cash-rich clubs of the Aviva Premiership and Top14 is even more important for them than the likes of Leinster or Munster.
While the IRFU have been largely successful in their attempts to keep stars with their provinces, Monday saw the announcement that Simon Zebo will be the latest Ireland squad member to leave the comforts of home and try his luck abroad.
The Munsterman has long spoken of his desire to one day ply his trade in France, but the news that he would be a Racing 92 player next season, and presumably therefore enter into international exile, was still a significant blow just two years out from the World Cup in Japan.
The livewire winger/fullback joins his fellow Munsterman Donnacha Ryan, and the Leinster trio of Ian Madigan, Marty Moore and the since returned Johnny Sexton, in opting for a move abroad while still a Test contributor, but as yet Ulster's own Ireland contingent have not been tempted to foreign climes.
In a season though when Iain Henderson, Jared Payne and indeed Best himself are all in the final year of their deals, as well as fringe internationals such as Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy, the fit-again hooker thinks his side have to be even more vigilant than their Irish neighbours.
"It's hard to know why (nobody has left)... just as long as it doesn't happen in the next couple of years," joked the man who at 35-years-old knows his next deal will surely be his last. "Maybe it's because we just don't really like to leave home.
"You can probably argue that, if anything, there should be more Ulster players going as we don't have the same tax incentives (to retire in Munster, Leinster or Connacht).
"But there's maybe a side that says we have not had as many talented players.
"When you look at that list of players in Ireland squads, Ulster's contingent has been relatively small on a consistent basis, and the top English and French clubs only want the very best.
"We do have talented players, but it's not a conveyor belt like Leinster and so we really have to fight hard to make sure the ones we have stay."
With his Ireland hat on, Best admitted that national camps will be a lesser place without Zebo, whose personality is as effervescent as his flashes of brilliance with ball in hand.
Having seemingly been made to work hard to earn Joe Schmidt's trust during his early years, the Cork native has become a near permanent fixture in recent Ireland sides, rising to the occasion in such games as the history-making first win over the All Blacks last autumn.
"It is really disappointing for someone like him to probably rule himself out," Best said.
"We don't have a massive pool of players to pick from. It isn't England where you can have a hard and fast rule and say, 'Well, we have another three players of Simon's ability to pick from'.
"It is an opportunity for somebody coming behind, and very quickly you are going to have to find someone of Simon's ability to step up and play 11, 14 and 15.
"There's not too many people about with the skill level to do that as he can do.
"It is a big loss because, as much as anything else, characters around the place can be very hard to come by.
"True characters are probably becoming fewer and fewer as the level of intensity in rugby goes up, and the level of training expected becomes younger, younger and younger.
"Those sorts of guys are hard to find.
"More so for Munster, but from an Irish point of view it will be sad to potentially be in a squad without him. But I'm sure we'll unearth somebody. It's like everything, we will have to fill what will be a bit of a void."
While it will become apparent tomorrow whether Zebo's impending move to the French capital means he is cast aside from the national reckoning as early as next month's trio of Autumn Internationals, Best's own availability to lead the side come the visit of South Africa on November 11 is now decidedly more clear.
Having not played since the final midweek game of the British and Irish Lions tour back in June, he came off the bench last weekend in Ulster's Champions Cup defeat to La Rochelle after overcoming a hamstring problem sustained in training last month.
With more game time to come in this weekend's inter-pro with Leinster, Best believes he will be plenty fit enough for the Springboks, even if he is yet to be officially confirmed as continuing in the role of Schmidt's skipper.
"I haven't heard anything from Joe so I'll maybe turn the phone onto flight mode," he said with a smirk.
"It was always said as we were going along not to push the injury and risk any further setback, I had my own ideas and time frame. The leg has come through well (after last Sunday's defeat in France) and we'll see how we get through this weekend (against Leinster)."