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Gabriel Ibitoye insists he's no Superman, but his superman backstory is quickly taking him places

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images)

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Gabriel Ibitoye is too level-headed a young man to entertain any media hype surrounding him. Ask how he feels about a TV commentator describing him as Superman after his try-scoring dive against Australia at the 2017 under-20s World Cup and he raises his eyes in bemusement. “For me, that’s absurd. I’m no Superman. If you watch the phases before the try it was a massive team try. All I did was put the ball down in the corner. It was a great credit to my team to be able to put me in that position,” he insisted.

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RugbyPass can vouch that the 21-year-old has no airs and graces, his humbling backstory playing an important role in making him not only a prized asset for the future at Harlequins but also for Eddie Jones’ England. Attracting people from non-traditional rugby backgrounds into the sport is a hard sell close to the heart of Ibitoye, who describes himself as a ‘youth worker’ on his @_gabs11 Twitter page biography.

The other week he was busy at Grasshoppers RFC in Isleworth, helping Gallagher Insurance, Premiership Rugby’s title sponsor, to partner with Project Rugby, the 2017 RFU initiative aimed at reaching new communities and highlighting the benefits of playing rugby to many first time participants.

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“It’s good these initiatives are in place just to get people involved because you don’t know what you’re capable of until you’re involved in it. The more kids you get involved in these camps the more the sport will grow in this country. It’s like in New Zealand, kids play rugby from when they can walk. England are now one of the best teams in the world, but we can take it up another level if we build it from the ground up and get the ball in many more young people’s hands.”

Ibitoye’s message to any newcomers is simple – enjoy the sport. “Just to go out there and have fun. Just enjoy yourself and never be afraid of making mistakes. Just try and develop your skills. Create great friendships and great memories that playing with the people around you brings. That is what you want to be doing every weekend, playing with your mates.”

Ibitoye’s pals were all football-daft growing up. Born in Lambeth, he lived in the rugby wilderness of East Dulwich and more or less only fell into rugby by chance. “There wasn’t much rugby in East Dulwich,” said the Arsenal fan, reflecting on a remarkable journey that has taken him into the professional rugby circle of south-west London. “My primary school didn’t really play much. They played tag and that was about it. You don’t really hear about schools around there playing rugby. It was more the football scene that was big and it was quite competitive. It was only when I got to Trinity (in Croydon), that was when the rugby really ramped up.

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“When I started playing rugby I was 11, I was in the row and now I’m 21 and on the wing. I was big ten years ago, but now I’m only a small one… I went to Trinity on a soccer scholarship but played different sports. Hockey, football, cricket, rugby and it’s funny how it worked out. Alex Codling, Quins forwards and lineout coach, was director of sport there and he was the one that gave me the nudge towards rugby. He thought I could potentially make a career out of it, so I started playing more and taking it a bit more seriously. Then when I was better at rugby than football, I went the rugby path and haven’t looked back since.

Ibitoye’s upbringing owes much to his mother Olaide, a single mother of five. “Definitely. She came to most of my school and club games as well. She’s the one who gave me the opportunity, who helped me get the opportunity to play and take part. I’m very grateful for her influence.

“I have got a good support network around me in terms of family, friends. Some of my mum’s mates came over from Nigeria around the same time and we’re quite tight-knit. They all played a part in my upbringing and I have stayed close with them and being around other kids our age from different backgrounds was good. My mum – and my dad as well – played a massive part in where I am now. I’m very thankful for them,” he continued, going on to explain the unusual way he developed his much-talked-about handling skills.

“I’m not sure how old I was but I went to a basketball camp with my older sister because she was playing basketball at the time. It was one summer for about eight weeks. I just played every day and that is where my handling skills come from. I remember in the first training session at Trinity to see what group they would put us in, I was one of the better people and from then on it was, ‘Okay this kid has got some sort of hands.’”

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Rugby isn’t a major topic of conversation whenever Ibitoye goes home to East Dulwich. “You have got some people who do take an interest. It’s quite nice to see someone from the area growing up and starting to make a name for themselves but other than that, my family don’t really follow rugby so it’s a good break to go home. I can completely switch off, and my friends are all football fans.”

That said, having started playing football only because of his interest in Thierry Henry, it would make his day if someone ever approached him and said he was the reason why they took up rugby. “That would be awesome. He [Henry] was the reason why I fell in love with Arsenal and the game of football.

“If I’m the excuse for someone to pick up a rugby ball then that is awesome. That’s what this [Gallagher Project Rugby] programme is about, just getting people involved and showing rugby is inclusive and that anyone can play. That would put a massive smile on my face if someone came up to me and said I was the reason they started playing.”

It was January when Ibitoye re-committed his future to Harlequins. There was interest from rival clubs, but Paul Gustard was persuasive in highlighting to the explosive winger what might unfold if he stuck by the place where he served his apprenticeship. “I spoke to Paul and we have a plan of where we think I’m heading. He seemed like the right man to help me progress as efficiently and as quickly as possible to where I want to be in a few years’ time, so it was an easy decision to make in the end.

“The goal for every young rugby player is to represent their country. That is the ultimate goal for me, to represent England and win the World Cup, but there are a lot of small stepping stones I have got to take before eventually doing that. I need to cement a starting spot at Harlequins and become a big player for them. That will come first and then playing consistently week in and week out to catch Eddie Jones’ attention, that will put me in a good position to be able to represent my country.

“Having the head coach look at me as someone who has potential is a massive motivation in itself. I get excited when I speak to him on the phone because I know if you’re in contact with him it’s a good thing. Eddie’s a very enthusiastic person. He brings a lot of energy and this is massive in giving me the drive to go out and perform and want to put on that white shirt and represent my country. But for now, it’s just to be able to play well every week and to support my teammates when I’m not playing because if I just improve me as a person I will improve as a player. That will help me move forward.”

 

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