After setting the World Rugby U20 Championship alight in the summer, Harlequins’ talented back Gabriel Ibitoye is ready to take the next step this season and put down a marker for his club side.
His five tries at the annual age-grade championship saw him nominated for World Rugby Junior Player of the Year and although he ultimately lost out to South Africa’s Juarno Augustus, it was a campaign that left no one in any doubt as to his considerable potential.
Now, in the final stages of recovering from a hamstring injury, Ibitoye turns his attentions away from the England jersey and towards the iconic colours of the Harlequins.
The buzz around Marcus Smith may be all anyone is talking about right now, but it should be just as audible around Ibitoye, who the club have no desire to loan out and believe that, at 19 years of age, is ready to push for playing time with the first team.
His try-scoring exploits, many of which seem to defy the laws of physics, are causing his profile to soar. His speed and aerial ability both tally well for a wing, whilst his offloading allows him to keep phases alive and stretch defences.
The footwork, finishing and cadre of other offensive abilities that he possesses certainly pop whenever you watch him play, but it might be his defence which is the most impressive aspect of his game at this level.
Whether marshalling the defensive line and making defensive reads at outside centre or dropping deeper and taking up the right positions on the wing, Ibitoye is as skilled a player when his side do not have the ball, as when they do. His one-on-one tackling technique is particularly enjoyable to watch.
It is something especially impressive given that Ibitoye only stands 5’ 8” and weighs in at a little over 14 stone. With those dimensions, people will flock to question how good he can be in defence, facing up against the physical monsters that the game boasts these days.
The answer? Not bad. Not bad at all.
Statistics without context aren’t particularly valuable, but it is worth noting that up until the final, England did not concede a single try on Ibitoye’s wing during the U20 Championship and when you factor in how open the games are at that level, it is not something to be dismissed lightly.
That ability to positively impact the game with his defence draws the player to the 13 jersey, but having excelled for England out wide and facing the possibility of both Marland Yarde and Tim Visser being international window casualties for Quins, the opportunity is there to push for valuable minutes alongside Charlie Walker on the wing.
As such, he is actively looking to improve his work rate and make sure he is as involved in a game as possible, rather than becoming isolated out on the wing. It’s a skill Chris Ashton perfected over the years and one that is often lost on young wings coming through, many of whom rely on their physical abilities to make the most of one-on-one opportunities out wide, rather than searching for the ball and space on the inside.
Something that will help Ibitoye in this regard is that his reading of the game – both in attack and in defence – is excellent, something which has become a hallmark of Harlequins’ senior academy members and academy graduates in recent years.
The youngster has already had a taste of senior rugby, featuring as an 18-year-old for Harlequins in their game with the New Zealand Maori last season. The inexperienced Quins side were solidly beaten, but that didn’t prevent Ibitoye from looking the part in his unofficial senior debut, matching up well against the likes of Matt Proctor and James Lowe.
The club’s desire to keep him close and not send him out on loan or dual-register him bodes well for his playing chances this season and if he can make an impact in those opportunities, Eddie Jones will know about it.
The England senior management are aware of Ibitoye, not to mention impressed by his defensive skills. It is quite a unique way to make a name for yourself as a budding winger, but given Jones’ reluctance to give Semesa Rokoduguni a prolonged run in the side due to perceived defensives issues, it is certainly not the worst way.
One of the hallmarks of the Australian’s tenure has been his eagerness to not only get younger players involved with the England set-up, such as Marcus Smith’s visit to a training camp as a 17-year-old and his current apprenticeship, but also to blood them, as illustrated by senior caps for Tom Curry, Nick Isiekwe and Jack Maunder.
Of course, England calls are still a way off for Ibitoye but for the versatile back to know he’s on Jones’ radar will do his confidence no harm at all.
Fast rises are something Quins and England fans are becoming accustomed to and though Ibitoye is actually a year Smith’s senior, he could well be the next player to tread early the relatively short path from the Stoop to Twickenham.
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