'He should be playing for one of the best clubs in the world'
Three years ago Harlequins youngsters Gabriel Ibitoye and Marcus Smith were “apprentice” players added to the England squad preparing to play France but their careers have since taken very different routes.
While Smith is still at Harlequins having become and England international and a British and Irish Lion, Ibitoye is at a rugby cross roads and finds himself trying to regain lost ground as a member of Tel Aviv Heat , Israel’s first professional rugby team, who play their first game in Tbilisi against Black Lion on Saturday in the inaugural Rugby Europe Super Cup.
In July last year, Ibitoye left Harlequins to join Agen in the Top 14 on a two-year deal. However, he was granted mutual release from the club and he signed for Montpellier as a medical joker for the rest of the 2020-21 season. He is now a free agent on a short term contract with Tel Aviv alongside ex-Springbok Nic Groom, Namibian No8 Renaldo Bothma and a group of Fijian players who only arrived at the start of this week to face a team made up of Georgian internationals.
His attack coach with Tel Aviv knows all about recovering from a serious set back in rugby. Demetri Catrakilis was left fighting for his life in September 2017 after suffering a freak throat injury playing for Harlequins. The outside-half was taken off the pitch on a stretcher, with an oxygen mask on his face as he fought against the swelling that was constricting his throat and making breathing increasingly difficult.
Catrakilis had been accidentally struck in the throat by the shoulder of Gloucester’s Andy Symons and needed oxygen and feared for his life during the 30-minute ambulance ride to hospital, where he was given injections to relax his throat and took six months to recover.
Catrakilis cannot believe Ibitoye is playing for his newly formed team and constantly tells the wing he should be with a top European club. Catrakilis said: “I don’t know how Gabs is playing for us. He should be playing for one of the best clubs in the world and we are lucky to have him. He needs another chance and hopefully he is going to showcase his talents with us. I hope he finds a great contract at a big club soon and I would be surprised if he is not the best player in this competition. I can’t understand – and I have said this to him in recent days – how he doesn’t have a contract. It blows my mind. While no one wants to use these guys we are delighted to have them.
“We have had limited time together and I have only started working since we arrived in Georgia and it is difficult so we will keep it simple. It is like we are coaching the Barbarians.”
Ibitoye is part of a Tel Aviv squad playing in the eight team competition launched by Rugby Europe and split into two conferences. Tel Aviv will play home and away against the Black Lion (Georgia) and the Russian teams Enisey-Stm and Lokomotiv Penza. Teams from Belgium , Netherlands, Spain and Portugal are in the other conference with the top two teams go through to the finals stages.
South African Kevin Musikanth, head coach of the Israel rugby union team, is in charge of Tel Aviv which has involved helping put the squad together, coaching the players and also picking them up at the airport when they arrive from around the world. He said: “I am coach, travel agent, recruiter while also sorting out visas and the Fijian guys flew into Georgia this week. We have 29 guys in our squad and eight are home grown players from Israel. Rugby needs competitions like this.
“Our budget is made up by backers and the average age of the squad is 26 and they are on short term contracts and we want to see how the competitions evolves. We only contracted our first player in the middle of July and the tournament is starting a month late because of COVID reasons.”
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