Having recently transferred from Harlequins to Agen Gabriel Ibitoye has demonstrated unbridled ambition to enhance his understanding of rugby and achieve a lifelong dream of his. Whilst eyebrows were raised in England at his willingness to move to France, with some questioning the motives behind it, it is clear this move was driven by an unrelenting determination to fulfil his immense potential and to experience a “new challenge”.
Ibitoye is an individual who holds himself to high standards and knows hard work is paramount to success. Having just purchased FIFA 21 he insists before putting his reputation on the line against his new teammates and playing online, he will do his practice and learning beforehand. This attitude though was forged through his dedication to his main craft, and he approaches rugby with an uncompromising ferocity to maximise his abilities, whilst keeping his head firmly on his shoulders. Consequently, he has his sights set high, and wants to “win the biggest trophies; Premierships, the Top 14, European Cups, and the biggest one of them all, the World Cup”.
— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) June 8, 2017
Moving to Agen, situated in the French rugby heartland, is the next step in his rugby development as he looks to get further recognition for his exploits and make that next break in pursuit of his “ultimate goal” to be part of England’s next World Cup winning squad.
“It [playing rugby in France] is something that I have always wanted to do. Why not now? I am not in the England squad every time the camp is named; I am not better than the England wingers at the moment. They went to the final of the World Cup and they did not do much wrong, and the team is still very strong. If I am not at the level competing for those positions then why don’t I go and experience different things, whilst I am still developing, it is not like I’ve plateaued. I am still only 22 – I have time.”
Having arrived in Agen in August, Ibitoye has taken to life in the south of France with ease. He is not the type to get homesick and says “Facetime is enough” to keep up with his family back home in Lambeth who he speaks to nearly every day. Phillipe Sella, the French Hall of Fame centre who played 111 times for Les Bleus, has been on hand to help Ibitoye to settle in. Seeing as he is the “King of Agen”, there are few better placed to aid the young English starlet’s adjustment to life across the Channel, especially in this pandemic stricken era.
As for matters on the pitch, he has immediately struck a good rapport with the head coach Christophe Laussucq, a former French international. “Speaking to the coach he believed in me and what I could bring to the team, and the style of heads up rugby is something that definitely attracted me. He has got good ideas about what to do on the field. He is really simple and clear with his communication. He says it how it is which is good for me learning.”
Unsurprisingly, Ibitoye has transitioned to French rugby seamlessly. Having enjoyed pre-season and particularly the delightful weather, he has confirmed the coaching staff’s opinion of him as one of the two first choice wingers. He scored twice and assisted once on his debut against Castres. The predisposition amongst French teams to “joue”, and attack with verve from anywhere on the field suits Ibitoye, as someone who grew up admiring the playing style of Danny Cipriani, perfectly.
Watching compilations of his career best moments it is striking that he is a player with the ability to make the impossible seem tangible. Be that through acrobatic finishes, or mazy runs that make gaps appear as though he were Houdini. Despite those abilities he maintains that attacking is simple. “I always go back to what I was taught as a kid growing up through the England pathway; attack is easy you just have to go forward and support the ball or the space and you will find the solutions.”
Ibitoye emphasises he is extremely grateful for his time at Harlequins too, acknowledging how much he learnt on and off the pitch whilst playing there, as well as the “heaps of friends” he made. He still speaks to them regularly and didn’t miss the opportunity to partake in the Schadenfreude of Liverpool’s 7-2 loss to Aston Villa by ruffling a few of his former colleagues’ feathers about it.
Similar to fans at the Stoop, the Agen faithful have certainly taken a shine to him. The French media were enthralled by his opening performances, with L’Equipe feeling compelled to write a “Five Things to Know” article and declaring him the “future star of world rugby”. Ibitoye is a level-headed man, shrugging off the headlines maintaining that his talking is done on the pitch, and that he won’t allow the hype to get the better of him. “I don’t like talking too much when I haven’t really done much, you can start speaking more once you’ve achieved a few things.”
“They expect a lot of things from me, which is a good thing. I definitely feel like I have the support from them, which is good for a young guy coming to a foreign country, playing rugby and still learning the game. I feel like there is a lot of support for me out here.”
He has earned that local support so far and will catch the eye of others watching from pastures afar if he continues to stand out for an Agen side that has started somewhat slowly. “I am a positive person when it comes to things like this, I think we can turn things around. Hopefully we can build some momentum and win some games.”