Place of Birth: Dax, February 17, 1973
Internationals: 98 caps between 1997 and 2007
Inducted: England v France (March 15, 2009)
The following article has been adapted from the original by Dai Llewellyn, which focused on two players. It has been changed to highlight only the selected inductee’s information.
Raphael Ibanez, the former French captain and in 2009 the most capped hooker in the world with 98 appearances, has not yet had time to decide quite where his future lies. He admits it could be coaching, but he has only just retired completely from the game, after being forced to call it a day in the middle of an important season for his adopted club, London Wasps.
For someone who has plied his rugby trade in one of the hardest and darkest places on a rugby field – the front row – there is a surprisingly emotional side to Ibanez. “When I was told that I had been inducted on to the Wall of Fame at Twickenham I was very emotional, because it means a lot to me.”
And he blows aside hundreds of years of rivalry between France and England when he adds: “And for a Frenchman to be considered good enough for such an honour by his English peers is quite something.
“After all, it is your opponents who get the best out of you. That is why when I retired from all rugby in February, in addition to thanking all my team-mates, I also remembered to thank all my opponents. That is why I think it such a good idea to open up the Wall of Fame to overseas players at what is the home of rugby.”
An element of superstardom inevitably settles over the shoulders of today’s leading sportsmen, whatever their speciality, and that is reflected in Ibanez’s next words. “For me being inducted on to the Wall of Fame, it is the equivalent of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.”
Somehow the Chertsey Road doesn’t have quite the cachet of Sunset Boulevard or Hollywood Boulevard, where film stars and musicians are celebrated on the pavements, but the fact that the Wall of Fame is at Twickenham makes his membership of 100 of the world’s greatest players all the sweeter for Ibanez.
“When I think of Twickenham there is one game that I recall,” says Ibanez. “It was the Rugby World Cup semi-final against New Zealand in 1999.”
It is probably the one match every England supporter recalls with fondness and a few goosebumps as well. It was a match that saw the mighty All Blacks brought down to earth with a crash. And there was no luck about it: the final score had a big enough margin to suggest that France had won the game convincingly, not that the sporting and sensitive Ibanez, who was captain of France that day, remembers it that way.
“That kind of game is very difficult to explain,” he says. “You can’t say easily why or how it happened. But it still has a special place in my heart.
“Of course the game was amazing. I think it was probably the first time, and it will probably be the last time as well, that the English supporters were behind the French team. It is for sure the last time it will ever happen. This is one of the reasons why the match was so special.
“We were aware of the special atmosphere when we were out there on the pitch. What happened was, the first half we were trying to deal with the immense pressure from the All Blacks. They had started the game as favourites. In the second half initially it became a survival mission, then came this amazing comeback. The fans by then were well behind us.”
But Twickenham was not always such a great stadium for Ibanez. In all he played there for France on seven occasions and apart from the historic victory over New Zealand, he tasted victory just once. His last appearance there in a France jersey was in 2007, but not in the Six Nations. It was the last warm-up game before the start of the 2003 Rugby World Cup.
“I had to wait until one of my last caps before France beat England at Twickenham,” he says with an air of resignation. “I suppose, after five attempts and finally doing so at the sixth try, at least you could say I am the kind of guy who does not give up. I returned to Twickenham so many times with my country, yet only managed to beat England once in six visits.”
Ibanez has had a great deal more luck there with Wasps. “The stadium was, and still is, for me something special. Over the last three years I have appeared with Wasps in three finals at Twickenham.
“My first taste of a club final at Twickenham was against Llanelli in the Anglo-Welsh Cup – that was in 2006, my first year with Wasps. We won that match 26-10. The following year we played Leicester in the Heineken Cup final, again we won, 25-9 [Ibanez scored a try]. The year after that, at the end of last season, again we played Leicester, this time in the Premiership final, a match we won 26-16.”
Oddly it was when he was playing for Wasps that he found himself being affected by the atmosphere of the place. “Twickenham can be a daunting place to play, but it can also give you the edge you need to perform well.
“I had my first experience of shivers down my spine or goosebumps when we came out onto the Twickenham pitch for the Heineken Cup final in 2007. I think that was the biggest occasion for a club game. When we came out of the tunnel I know that my parents, who were in the stands, were moved to tears. It was amazing and fantastic.”
The effect of the stadium on players prompts Ibanez to say: “Twickenham is a place where you want your best players on the field and you want the best performance from them. This is where the big games are played and this is where it is a test for you and for everyone. I have a special relationship with Twickenham.
“It is an intimidating place especially when you play England, and for French players this is regarded as the ultimate test of character.
“During all the games I have played at Twickenham and most of the time whatever else you bring into the game – your skills, your stamina, your speed, your strength –what you need to bring to the games at Twickenham is your heart. You have to be ready to front up when you are there.”
Ibanez comes from Dax, in the southwest of France. It is a heartland of rugby – and another sport that demands oodles of courage and an ability to front up when the going gets tough. Like it or loathe it, bull-fighting is a part of the culture there.
Ibanez acknowledges this. “There is a bullfighting arena in Dax. It is a big arena, but when I started playing rugby, I was very pleased to find one that was bigger than that, and that one was Twickenham.
“Twickenham is like the bullfighting arena in Nimes, which was built by the Romans, and the arena in Dax, when you go to these places you can almost smell the history. These arenas are for gladiators and rugby players are like gladiators.”
But as the steam vaporises Ibanez is also able to reflect on more gentle uses of Twickenham. “I have always been fascinated by the West Car Park at Twickenham – all those fans opening the boots of their cars and having drinks and food before the game. In fact, the first time I went to Twickenham I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and I was ready to jump off the team coach and have a quick glass of wine with them. It would have been good for Anglo-French relations.
“Something else that I like about Twickenham was when we played our arch rivals Leicester. Before the matches I was really surprised and impressed that you could see families, where the father for example, would be wearing a Wasps replica jersey, while the mother would have on a Leicester Tigers jersey.”
As for the legendary baths, Ibanez is not quite so fond of them. “The baths are impressive, but it is not good putting yourself into a bath full of ice cubes. There are no hot baths in the modern game. But when you win games it is a lot easier to step into one of these baths that is filled with ice, than when you lose.”
There is one memory of the ground that Ibanez, who captained his country on five of the seven visits to Twickenham and led France on 41 occasions in all, cherishes.
“I have one other memory of Twickenham. Originally plaques were put on the walls of the tunnel recording England victories, although I think they have been removed now.
“After that victorious game against New Zealand in 1999 one of our players – I won’t say who – got a felt-tip pen and wrote on the wall the score between France and New Zealand that day. And as captain I was pleased to allow this to be done after such a big game.” Sadly, Ibanez adds, “I think it has subsequently been painted over.”
That is not something that is going to happen to the records of Raphael Ibanez, whose exploits, not only at Twickenham but in the game as a whole, are indelibly imprinted in its history. Perhaps the authorities at the ground might consider putting up a plaque to celebrate that great France win of 1999. It would be a huge gesture towards Anglo-French relations, as well as bringing a smile to the faces of all French players, past and present.
Article by Dai Llewlellyn