Ibanez launches new era in style


If you squint at the team photographs long enough, it is almost possible to imagine history is repeating itself. A young, dark-haired captain, a hint of soulfulness in the watchful eyes, handed responsibility with near-reckless haste in a time of national need. Short of inviting Will Carling to audition for the part himself, the French selectors could not have cast the leading role more perfectly.

Even Carling took 2 1/2 years to lead England to a Grand Slam; Raphael Ibanez could yet achieve it inside 2 1/2 months if Ireland are beaten in Paris today and Les Bleus do not lose their way at Wembley against Wales on April 5th.

Those who shrieked Raphael Who? when the 24-year-old hooker was appointed in January will, of course, be first in the congratulatory queue.

Jean-Claude Skrela clearly knew what he was doing when he dumped the old guard in the wake of the 5210 annihilation by South Africa at Parc des Princes last November and put in a call to Dax. Ibanez, a qualified rugby instructor, had already led France to victory in the Student World Cup in 1996 and led the French A team; his cohorts formed the nucleus of Skrela's 1999 World Cup plans. So it was that Ibanez, with a mere six caps to his name, found himself chosen to launch the new era in the gleaming Stade de France, in charge of a starting line-up containing just three players over the age of 26. If England failed to deliver, Ibanez and his contemporaries seized the moment with relish.

"It's all a bit of a blur. I can only remember flashes," he says now, attempting to recall the emotions stirred by his side's vibrant 24-17 win. Strange, for it is his ability to keep a cool head in the heat of battle that has been so conspicuously to France's advantage so far. Speaking some English has also helped to keep referees onside.

It sounds simple, which is more than can be said for Ibanez's route to the top. The grandson of a Spanish emigre who fled the Civil War in 1936, Ibanez grew up in the Landes region of south-west France, in the village of Saugnac and Cambran (population: 1,000) situated 5km from Dax. Somehow he played basketball until he was 17, despite the fact his father Jacques had hooked for Dax and later coached them.

Eventually, though, the teenage Raphael stopped growing and began to look beyond hoops. "At 17 I didn't now anything about rugby apart from a few matches I'd watched at Dax and seen on television. I wanted something which would satisfy my competitive spirit and I thought rugby would be a good way of expressing myself."

Dax has launched such folk heroes as Jean-Pierre Bastiat and Jean-Patrick Lescaboura, not to mention Thierry Lacroix and Olivier Roumat, and the conveyor-belt is still operational. The current pack members Olivier Magne and Fabien Pelous, now with Brive and Toulouse respectively, were both capped while at Dax and Magne in particular remains very much part of the family.

He and Ibanez have both settled down with sisters of the French back Richard Dourthe; the flanker is getting married this year, and Ibanez and his wife Marie are expecting their first child in August.

Pelous and Magne have been among those consulted by Ibanez, who made his debut as a replacement against Wales two years ago. Since he accepted a job he insists will not alter his priorities. Hence, the battered 2CV remains in the garage and fly-fishing trips and reflective mountain walks continue to be his major passions.

Skrela has rapidly come to appreciate his lieutenant's quiet authority, describing Ibanez as "a very hard man and a natural leader" despite the captain's protestations. In the professional era, just when captains are supposed to be declining in influence compared with the cast of thousands on the bench, the coach seems happy for France to buck the trend.