Raphael Ibañez: Happiness and the art of French expressionism

After a difficult time a year ago, Raphael Ibañez has rediscovered his appetite for rugby at Wasps, and is looking forward to expressing himself fully in the Powergen Cup final against Llanelli Scarlets tomorrow
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Wasps always hoped to learn a thing or two from Raphael Ibañez when they talked him into joining them from Saracens; the French hooker had, after all, led his country to a Grand Slam and a World Cup final, which was significantly more than Lawrence Dallaglio and Matt Dawson had managed during their respective dabblings with the captaincy duties at international level. What they did not anticipate from their illustrious front-row recruit was a course of lessons in the language of Proust. When all is said and done, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu does not mean a fat lot to the rugger-bugger community down Acton way.

Nevertheless, Ibañez pushed ahead with his good works in the classroom. "I was surprised by the response," he said this week. "The English have this reputation for laziness when it comes to speaking other languages, but the players who came to me to learn French were very enthusiastic. Joe Worsley was my best pupil, I think. He has a curious mind." Sir Clive Woodward, not one of Worsley's greatest supporters, has also been heard to describe the flanker as "curious", but that is another story entirely.

The lessons drew to a close when the Six Nations Championship kicked in and Ibañez, having done a Dallaglio and revisited his decision to retire from Test rugby, was called upon to right a few wrongs from the epicentre of the Tricolore pack. This he did, with striking success. Having played the Scots without him and lost, the French recalled him for their home game with Ireland and proceeded to win four matches on the bounce - not the greatest run of performances in their history by a very long chalk, but enough to win them a third title in five years.

Yet if Six Nations business has been completed for another season, this is no time to for a resumption of linguistic instruction. Tomorrow, Ibañez faces Llanelli Scarlets in the Powergen Cup final at Twickenham; next weekend, he travels to Watford for an important bout of Premiership wrestling with his old muckers from Saracens; and from there on in, Wasps have three matches - against Leicester, London Irish and Gloucester - that will establish the pecking order at the top end of the table ahead of next month's play-offs, in which the Londoners will attempt to land themselves a fourth consecutive domestic championship. Every game is a big game in this day and age, but at this stage of a campaign, some are bigger than others.

Six and a half years after captaining France through the 1999 World Cup, when they were riven by internal squabbling and holed beneath the waterline by their own indiscipline yet still managed to beat the All Blacks, in one of the two or three greatest matches in the annals of the international game, to earn themselves a shot at John Eales and his formidable Wallabies in the final, Ibañez has rediscovered the best of himself. Always a player of the grandest passions, he now performs with a fury refined by the richness of his experience. Dallaglio has been there and seen it all, but only in the black of Wasps and the white of England. By contrast, Ibañez has reached a similar point in his career by bouncing himself round the regions of France - he has played professional rugby with the Basques of Dax, the Catalans of Perpignan and the Midi-Pyreneeans of Castres - and then exploring pastures new on the wrong side of the Channel.

"I have come to understand that I am privileged to play at this level, that I'm doing something special," he said. "There was a time after the 2003 World Cup when I believed, deep within myself, that I could not bring anything more to the French team, that I was exhausted both physically and emotionally. But to say 'no more' is easy. It is after saying it that the difficulties begin. Do you really feel that way? Is this what you desire, a life without playing at the highest point possible? When I finally felt ready to ask myself those questions, I decided that I wanted to return to international rugby.

"Who helped me do this? Wasps helped me. I have found a place here where the individual is treasured, where self-expression is valued very highly. I have great energy now; I'm young again. This is because of the way players are managed at this club. The way I feel at the moment, age is no longer an important issue. People keep asking me how old I am and I always tell them I'm 32. I've decided that I will stay 32 for the rest of my career. Actually, I'm 33. I give you this information because I want to be honest with you."

Self-expression is central to the hooker's approach to rugby. (It is not only the Thomas Castaignèdes and Frédéric Michalaks who consider this to be their sporting birthright. French forwards also think of themselves as artists). As a case in point, Ibañez tells a lovely story about Cédric Soulette, the Toulouse prop alongside whom he played in that World Cup final against the Wallabies.

"Cédric had a dangerous look about him, but this was not because he was an evil player," he recalled. "It was because he had terrible eyesight and could not see without squinting and screwing up his face. Nicolas Mas, who plays for Perpignan, is another prop with this problem of looking more frightening than he is. Anyway, Cédric was the happiest man in the world when we played Australia in the final. I was captain, I knew how tired we were after beating the All Blacks and I feared we might lose by 50 points if things went wrong. Cédric was different. He said: 'This is the greatest day of our lives, so we should play with smiles and laughter.' And he did, even though we lost. Today, he tries to make a living as a painter. I'm not sure his paintings are good, but I tell him he must continue. It is his identity, his individuality. To me, this is everything."

As things stand, Ibañez is keen to play for France in their "home" World Cup next year. "At this stage of my life, I neither look back nor forward," he said. "For coaches, the World Cup is so close it's almost here. For players, many things can happen between now and the start of the tournament, so it would be a big mistake for anyone to expect to participate. Who can predict what will happen?

"Last summer, I was between clubs, fighting to leave one so I could join another. It was a bad time, the dark side of rugby. Now, I can say I'm enjoying the game more than for many years. It will be the toughest challenge of my career just to get to the World Cup. If I carry on as I am, I see no reason why I can't be a part of it. But 'if' is such a big word."

Not being one to put the cart before the horse, even in his more lyrical moods, Ibañez considers tomorrow's final to be the most important thing in his sporting world. "Maybe Llanelli Scarlets are better at home than away; in the Heineken Cup, they produced a very good performance to beat us at Stradey Park, but offered much less in the return game a week later.

"But those games are insignificant, because a final is so different in respect of the massive opportunity it presents to a player. Just like the Welsh team in the Six Nations, who might easily have beaten France in the final game, they are capable of bringing the whole of their rugby culture to bear on the match. They have a good mix of forward passion and back-line skill. We will have to play our best rugby to win, I think.

"But we can do this. We play a very ambitious game, both in attack and defence. I've been in sides that defend in ways similar to Wasps, but not with such an embrace of risk. We know we live on the edge in the way we approach our defensive duties, but this is what gives the team its unique spirit. To play as we do it is necessary to have complete trust in your partners, and to me, trust is the very essence of rugby - the confidence that your colleagues will give everything of themselves, just as you do, to achieve a victory. Rugby has evolved very rapidly since professionalism began, but it remains a game of simple virtues. It is 90 per cent hard work and 10 per cent magic."

In his very finest moments - and there have been a good number of those down the years - Ibañez combines perspiration and inspiration as effectively as any front-row forward of his generation. He is far from the biggest physical specimen ever to bear arms at the fulcrum of the scrum, but few hookers have brought more to the party in terms of fiery-eyed intensity. A player of moods, the Frenchman is currently on a high. If the Scarlets will find him a handful tomorrow, the best international sides in the world can expect to be confronted with someone equally motivated in France next year.