Rugby Union: Happiness and the Art of French Expressionism ; the Saturday Interview after a Difficult Time a Year Ago, Raphael Ibaez Has Rediscovered His Appetite for Rugby at Wasps, and Is Looking Forward to Expressing Himself Fully in the Powergen Cup Final against Llaneli Scarlets Tomorrow
Chris Hewett, RugCorrespondent, The Independent (London, England)
Wasps always hoped to learn a thing or two from Raphael Ibaez 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 ruggerbugger community down Acton way.
Nevertheless, Ibaez 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 Ibaez, 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, Ibaez 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 ha three matches - against Leicester, London Irish and Gloucester - that will establis h pecking order at the top end of the table ahead of next month's playoffs, 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, Ibaez 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 experince. Dallaglio has been there and seen it all, but only in the black of Wasps and the white of England. By contrast, Ibaez 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. …