Rugby Union: The catalyst with the soul of a poet

Virtually unknown at the start of the season, Raphael Ibanez has emerged as a natural leader. Ian Borthwick met him
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The Independent Online
THE French team might be on the verge of winning their first ever back-to-back Grand Slam, but for those who have followed the week's build- up to the crucial match against Wales at Wembley tomorrow, the most striking factor is the imperturbable calm and composure in the French camp.

Perhaps it has something to do with their new captain, Raphael Ibanez, the hooker from Dax who arrived as a virtual unknown at the beginning of this season's Five Nations' Championship and who appears to have been the catalyst for what is virtually a spontaneous generation of new players.

Before France played England in the vital opening game of the Championship in February, Ibanez had only six caps, four of which were as a replacement. But scarcely two months later, he is firmly established as the captain who will lead them into the World Cup next year. He is a fresh voice at the heart of a side traumatised by the humiliating 52-10 defeat against South Africa last November.

Reserved and softly spoken off the field, Ibanez is almost a novelty in today's international rugby: a front-row forward with a literary bent, a hooker who leads by example but who is always capable of retaining a perspective on both rugby and life. Built like a bull, but with the soul of a poet, his carry-on luggage for the trip to Waterloo contained a book of short stories by the great Spanish novelist Cervantes. Having hesitated, after winning his French equivalent of A levels, between an art degree and a career in sport, Ibanez has for years maintained a passion for the written word, going as far as consigning, in an immaculately written hand, his deepest thoughts to a series of journals.

A perfectionist on and off the field, he regards the act of writing as a form of discipline. "These days I don't have the time any more to do much writing," he lamented at the Gare du Nord yesterday as he breakfasted on a croissant and a cup of hot chocolate before boarding the Eurostar. "Now that rugby has become virtually a full-time occupation, I have to put my writing on hold."

The grandson of a Spanish Republican who fled Spain in the 1930s seeking refuge in the south-west corner of France, Ibanez drives a clapped-out old Citroen 2CV and claims to be totally removed from the material concerns of life. Independent of spirit, enamoured of the idea of liberty his great passion outside rugby is fly-fishing in the rivers of the Basque country and he considers one of the great watersheds of his life to be a trip to Argentina in the summer of 1995.

After his club Dax was defeated by Toulouse in the semi-final of that year's French Championship, Ibanez threw a few clothes into a backpack and took off. On his own from Buenos Aries to Mendoza and Tucuman he went in search of himself as much as of Argentina.

"I wanted to meet people from all levels of society, and to see for myself the damage caused by colonialism and to find out what has happened to the original Indians of Argentina," he said. "I wanted to travel alone, it was vital. When you are alone in a foreign country like that you are obliged to be open-minded and to make an effort towards other people.

"But above all, I wanted to prove to myself that despite being so messy and removed from material realities, I am capable of organising myself."

Apparently this organisational capacity is now paying off as he has slipped effortlessly into the role of the natural leader of the Tricolores, something which they have lacked for several years. Captain of the French juniors who won the World Cup in Madrid in 1992, and the French Universities team which won the Students' World Cup in South Africa in 1996, he is clearly accustomed to the task. For him, this week's preparation at Clairefountaine has been based on retaining mental freshness in the players and not overtraining them.

"It is impossible not to think about it, but we are trying to keep the idea of the Grand Slam as far as possible from our minds," he said as the Eurostar cruised through the French countryside towards the Channel.

"First of all we have a match to win against Wales, and once we have done that we can start thinking about the rewards of a Grand Slam."

The memories of the close shave at the Stade de France when they almost lost to the fired-up Irish a month ago are still very much alive in the French camp, and Ibanez says his pre-match team talk will be all about lifting their commitment to produce the same sort of dedicated defensive effort that they showed against England.

"Against Ireland we were not sufficiently aggressive, we let them get the upper hand, and it was very difficult to get back into the match. We can't afford to let the happen again.

"We are all aware of the historical significance of this match and if we win the Grand Slam will come as an added reward. But we have not forgotten that first of all we have a match to win."