New Zealand rugby is about to encounter a ghost from its World Cup past as Raphael Ibanez, the hooker on the France teams that infamously knocked the All Blacks out of the 1999 and 2007 World Cups, is set to become the first French coach to work on the North Island.
Without a coaching job since leaving Bordeaux-Bègles in March 2017, the former hooker, who has 98 Test caps, will become assistant coach at Thames Valley for their Heartland Championship campaign.
The current French TV analyst had been in advanced contact for several months with the New Zealand province and he received a letter a few days ago formalising his invitation to link-up with them from July to October.
After two years away from the training ground, Ibanez is thrilled to get his coaching career back up and running in a place he describes as the best rugby country in the world.
“It’s a project I had in mind for a long time,” said Ibanez in Wednesday’s edition of L’Equipe, the daily French sports newspaper.
“The New Zealand Federation (NZRU) is proud to send its best managers around the world (Warren Gatland in Wales, Joe Schmidt in Ireland, Vern Cotter in France/Scotland). This is completely legitimate when their national team is double world champions.
“But to go the other way, a foreign coach in a New Zealand staff is almost impossible. The NZRU controls and centralises everything: clubs, players, coaches. It does not shock me at all. It made the project more difficult, but it seems that I am persevering.
“My profile helped, but it was mostly my friends on the spot who were very supportive: Tony Marsh, my former team-mate from France, who is in Auckland; Leon Holden, who was my coach at London Wasps, who lives in Waikato province.
“In fact, the Wasps connection played hard. I’m thinking of Shaun Edwards (the current Wales defence coach), my mentor of genius, who helped me at a Welsh selection camp in 2017. I spent five days in their training centre, sleeping on site at the Vale of Glamorgan.
“Warren Gatland (Wasps coach between 2002 and 2005) opened everything to me, but I was just an observer on a personal study trip. There, Gatland personally supported my candidacy for it to be done with Thames Valley. In addition, this is the first province he trained (between 1994 and 1996), I guess it had to play in the decision.
On dirait que @lequipe n a toujours pas compris la structure du rugby NZ #Ibañez va en fait coacher des semi-pros en 3e division provinciale, où on joue pour quelques centaines de dollars, une sorte de Fédérale 1 (mais avec des joueurs et un cadre +++)https://t.co/m7fkmzxDeB
— François Mazet (@fmazet) April 3, 2019
“I hope for a great rugby and cultural adventure because the two aspects are strongly related there. Especially since I’m going to coach up: an agreement was also signed with the province of Counties Manukau, another team based in South Auckland, for me to come regularly to their sessions.
“That’s it, it’s very open. I plan to optimise my time there. It will be a winter rugby (reverse season compared to France), but it does not matter. I will be at the heart of their system. I go there with a great desire, but very humbly…
“I will be assistant coach, I guess, although I do not know if I’ll have a title. As a matter of fact, Matt Bartleet met his staff on Monday to discuss the upcoming feature for this season.
Asked if his presence in New Zealand will have the locals recalling how Ibanez’ France national teams caused them so much World Cup heartbreak by defeating them in London on 1999 and again in Cardiff eight years later, the soon-to-be-assistant is hoping for a warm welcome.
“New Zealanders have memories, but I’m no longer a player. I come for something else, with a very enthusiastic mindset, in order to get the most out of things. I go there to discover their rugby from the inside.
“I’m very interested, in particular, to discover the schools, to see how one prepares to become a professional player, what are the links which unite the school environment and the clubs.”
Since leaving Bordeaux, Ibanez has kept his hand in by visiting various different set-ups. “I went on a rugby trip to better understand the training methodologies. I really needed this material after the end of the story in Bordeaux.
“I went visiting Munster, Leinster, the national team for Wales and finally two weeks with New Zealand provinces (Wellington and Waikato). I was not too wrong because, since then, Leinster has become European champion and the Welsh have just done the Grand Slam!
“It was great, very informative, but the big difference this time is I will be coaching full time. I will be part of Thames Valley technical support. I exchanged a lot with head coach Matt Bartleet – whom I have not met yet physically – and we are convinced that we have many ideas to share.”
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