Rugby World Cup: Ibanez emotions tuned to Tricolores' cause

WORLD CUP FINAL The French captain now has full backing of his countrymen after battling through uncertainty and criticism
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The Independent Online
THIRTY MINUTES or so before kick-off this afternoon, just as the strains of the traditional Basque rugby anthem Boga Boga are reverberating around the vast concrete bowl of the Millennium Stadium in downtown Cardiff, Raphael Ibanez will eject all outsiders from the Tricolore dressing-room, slam the door shut, gather his countrymen into a tight circle and ask them for the impossible. "You must play with your heads, not your hearts," he will tell his hot-blooded charges. "You must forget your emotions. Emotions are for those who follow us, who think about us, who love us. We ourselves cannot afford emotions. We have a job to do." At which point, his more passionate colleagues will break down in tears.

Such is the paradox at the core of French rugby. Ignore the old chestnut about the beauty and the beast: all great sides - the best All Blacks, the strongest Springboks, most certainly the current Wallabies - will happily take temporary leave of the sunlit uplands and descend into the dark alleyways if the situation demands it. But only Les Bleus can visit both heaven and hell in the time it takes to uncork a bottle of vin rouge, and it takes a leader of unusual depth of character to square the psychological circle.

Which is where Ibanez, a 26-year-old hooker of Spanish ancestry who first led his country a little under two years ago, comes into a seriously complex equation. "I selected Raphael as captain because he is very strong intellectually," explained Jean-Claude Skrela, the French coach, this week. "He has the capacity to pull players around him and make them equally strong. It is obvious that he is a natural captain: he led a French XV to the World Junior Cup and another to the Students World Cup. Now he has taken this side to the World Cup final. It says something about him, all this. I do not doubt him and I have never questioned my own faith in him."

Skrela stands almost alone in this, for virtually everyone else in France, including Ibanez himself, has spent most of the last nine months wondering whether the captaincy is in the right hands. Three defeats in four outings left the Tricolores bottom of last season's Five Nations pile and a 50- point hammering in New Zealand in June gave an increasingly vocal anti- Ibanez faction more ammunition than they knew what to do with. The captain reacted in characteristic style, reaching for his fishing rod and disappearing into the hills around Perpignan for some solitary reflection.

"I asked myself many questions," he confesses. "What should I do - what could I do - to pull the squad back together? Was I good enough to make anything happen anyway? Was I the right man for the captaincy, the right man for France? After all, no player is indispensable. As always, there was only one answer to all these issues. I would follow my own feelings, my own heart, and give all of myself to the team. I cannot be superficial or untrue to my nature, so I did not try. I asked the players to forget the Five Nations, to forget New Zealand, and to work with me for a better future. That future began last week, with the defeat of the All Blacks."

Ibanez was born in Dax, in the French Pyrenees. The grandson of a Spanish republican who fled the Franco regime in the 1930s, he is very much the product of his unique sporting environment: an expert handball and basketball player and an enthusiastic follower of pelota, the fierce Basque ball game, he is also an aficionado of the bullfight, which runs deep in the Daxois psyche. His father Jacques was a hooker with the town club and a championship finalist in 1973, but Raphael came late to rugby; he was 16 when he made his first serious stab at the sport, yet progressed so rapidly that he was singled out as a Tricolore hooker-in-waiting before he left his teens. Open, articulate and disarmingly polite, he is a man of the people as well as a man of the soil. His squad may be dominated by big-city rugby aristocrats from Paris and Toulouse, but Ibanez talks their language as fluently as the language of the rural south.

"Do I feel under pressure now that the final is upon us? No, because the big pressure was on right at the start of the tournament. Our bad form last season and the results on the summer tour ensured this. It was logical that I should be criticised: how can a captain not take responsibility for his team?" But what about the events of 15 October in Toulouse, when a full house on the banks of the Garonne booed and hissed Ibanez during the bitter struggle with Fiji and openly celebrated when Marc Dal Maso, a mainstay of the local Colomiers club, replaced him during the second half? "This too was logical. I did not have the support of the country then, but I have it now I think, because of last week."

So what exactly happened last week? How, in the name of all that is holy, did his side produce, as if from a magician's beret, a combination of will, passion and elan so irresistibly potent that it exploded a thousand All Black myths and earned them the undying respect of the entire rugby community, as well as their place in today's climactic showpiece? Ibanez spreads his powerful arms and shrugs his shoulders, as legions of Tricolore forwards have shrugged before him. "I cannot explain. How can anyone explain such a thing? There are many elements in rugby, many parts to the whole. When a French team finds its rhythm, these situations [Ibanez often talks about "nice situations"] can develop. The rhythm is elusive, though. We knew we had the capacity to put the All Black pack in trouble, but to do it for 80 minutes... this was the challenge. It is the challenge against the Wallabies, too, but once again, I think we can bring solutions to the problem.

"It does not concern me that the All Blacks now accuse us of being too physical. It was a physical game, yes, but no more or less physical than any match between France and New Zealand. You must understand that such games demand everything of a player. We performed with enthusiasm, of course, and for sure, we put the New Zealanders in a panic. Things happen when one side is in a panic." Was he hinting that the All Blacks went soft when the heat came on? "No, not at all. All Black rugby is never soft. The next French team that plays New Zealand will have a hard time, I think. New Zealanders have good memories."

Whatever happens in Cardiff this afternoon, Ibanez will return to Perpignan, the club he joined from Dax at the beginning of last season, with enough memories to last him several lifetimes. Not only memories of the six weeks of Le Mondial, but of the six months or so that preceded it. "I have seen everything, experienced everything," he says. "Before the beginning of the Five Nations, I had known only the good times in rugby; there had been immense pleasure, nothing else. But to learn, as I have learned recently, that there can also be bad times and deep disappointment... it is rewarding in a different way, you understand? You get to know the people you can count on and those you cannot trust. This is good. This is life."

At which point, he is asked once again about his ancestry. "Are you a Basque?" someone shouts from the middle of the scrum surrounding him. Ibanez, so gentle and approachable until this point, glowers suddenly, a flash of anger illuminating his dark southern eyes. His right fist envelops the Le Coq Jaune, the traditional symbol of French rugby emblazoned on his tracksuit, and shakes it at his inquisitor. "I am French," he snaps. "Always French. Go and talk to Benazzi [a Moroccan] or Lievremont [born in Dakar]. They too are French."

As an answer, it was not especially enlightening. As a statement, it was chilling. Ibanez will give the whole of himself - body, mind and spirit - to the 80 decisive minutes of rugby that unfold this afternoon, and will expect an identical commitment from those who surround him. Two months ago - two weeks, indeed - he would not have received it. Today, he will not even have to ask.