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Anything is possible: Raphael Ibanez believes

Frankie Sheahan is driving to Galway. Well, supposed to be. Except somehow he's taken a wrong turn and got lost.

Beside him is Raphael Ibanez. One man is flustered. The other is not. Guess which one.

When Ibanez was just 22, he visited Argentina for the first time. So enraptured was this impressionable son of the Basque country by this sprawling, enigmatic territory, he decided to translate his fascination into book form, 'A bout de Bras' ('At Arm's Length').

So, you see, getting stranded in Ireland is not a problem for Raphael Ibanez (pictured right). Although one does sense a slight tremor in his tone when he recalls Sheahan suggesting they pitch up at a petrol station for a "how you say, big sandwich?"

Ever the charmer, Ibanez conducted a whirlwind tour of Ireland this week, recalling with impeccably dry wit some of his highlights against Ireland. His famous try in Croke Park -- "I was just too fast for Geordan Murphy" -- and some lowlights -- "Peter Clohessy was my worst opponent, but he wasn't too clever and I didn't understand the accent!"

It seems risible to condense such a vast career -- 98 caps, four Five/Six Nations Championships (two as Grand Slam winners), a try scorer during Wasps' 2007 Heineken Cup final win -- but one must try.


During his first stint en route to becoming the world's most capped hooker, he led France to a runners-up position in the 1999 World Cup before relinquishing the captain's armband at the end of that tournament to his good friend and former Dax team-mate, Fabien Pelous.

Ibanez walked away from international rugby at the end of the 2003 World Cup, but came out of retirement following his move to Wasps in the autumn of 2005 and was in the 2006 Six Nations-winning French squad under Pelous before skippering the side to victory the following year.

His Basque heritage is inked on his shoulder via a tattoo that reads "El Torro"; rugby is steeped in his blood too. Ibanez's father, Jacques, used to play hooker for Dax, home to Jean-Pierre Bastiat, Olivier Roumat and Ibanez's brothers-in-law, Olivier Magne and Richard Dourthe.

Dourthe's fiery mother, Maryse, created a storm at the Stade de France last year, gesticulating wildly throughout the clash with England and causing Martin Johnson, seated just behind, not a little annoyance. Will she hassle the mild-mannered Declan Kidney tomorrow? "For sure, she is the most capped supporter for France! That's a good start for an interview. Well done. But let's talk about the match, non?"

Ibanez is enthused by France in 2011, despite the "Australian storm" of 2010. L'homme tinker, Marc Lievremont, has resisted change, enforced his leadership and his side travel to Dublin in irresistible form.

"I think winning last weekend was a big relief for France," says Ibanez. "They lost their confidence after the Australian storm last November. We tend to forget that France are the Grand Slam holders, they have a title to defend. To me, Sunday is the real start of the championship for both these teams.

"France are not there yet compared to last year but there were good signs of improvement. They were very good from turnovers: three of the four tries came from Scottish mistakes and (Maxime) Medard and (Francois) Trinh-Duc are quick to seize on these.

"On the other hand, France weren't particularly clever off phase play. So when they need to put pressure on opposition sides, it wasn't really there but luckily for France, their forwards offer set-piece guarantee. At least the platform is there.

"France want to keep that set-piece momentum and remain sharp off turnovers. But they need to keep their concentration focused and that cost them a lot last weekend -- 25 missed tackles is far too much for the title holders."

Ibanez, contrary to his mild-mannered persona off the pitch, was rarely averse to crossing the edge on it; recall his punch on Keith Wood in the 1998 contest. More fiery Cognac than graceful Chablis, Ibanez is relishing the front-row battle.

"They're doing well," he acclaims of France's formidable front three, including his long-time rival at No 2, William Servat.

"They've got two very good props who are also mobile; all three are good ball-carriers. Ireland were under pressure last week but then Italy are well-renowned in that area.

"I wasn't really surprised. But good players can't under-perform twice in a row so I expect a different attitude against the French."

And Ireland's expected line-out variations are also key, he feels. "They have to vary their throws," he insists. "It's very simple in France: you have (Julien) Pierre at the front, (Imanol) Harinordoquy then (Julien) Bonnaire, three good players who can also contest. So (Jamie) Heaslip's selection is good news for the Irish line-out."


Ibanez won seven of his 10 tussles with the Irish, mostly pivotal, such as successive World Cup wins and the famous 2007 opener in Croke Park.

"Ah, the 2003 quarter-final in the Telstra Stadium, that was just the perfect game from France and 2007 ... well, we knew the story of the stadium.

"After the game, the players were so pleased that they wanted to go on a lap of honour. I refused, because I said we needed to celebrate in the dressing-room to pay tribute to the stadium and what happened there."

He will have returned to his home town of Dax, by a forest near the Atlantic coast in south-west France, to watch tomorrow's game with wife Sandra and his four children, firmly believing the French will win but that Ireland, should they play to their potential, can upset the odds.

We recall meeting in Cardiff before France's World Cup quarter-final epic against New Zealand when he told a disbelieving audience that his side could upset the forbidding odds.

They did so. Can Ireland? "Tout est possible," he signs off.

  • Raphael Ibanez was in Galway on Thursday for the first Guinness Area 22 Supporters' event of this year's Six Nations. His former team-mate, Thomas Castaignede, is a special guest at the next Guinness Supporters' event in the Four Seasons Hotel after Ireland's clash with France. To secure your spot at this unique 'This Is Rugby Country' occasion, register now at: www.Facebook. com/GuinnessRugbyIreland

Irish Independent