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The ex-England apprentice who took very different path to Marcus Smith

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Under different circumstances, Gabriel Ibitoye could well have been running out at Twickenham this Saturday to represent England instead of resting up and getting himself ready for Sunday’s Gallagher Premiership fixture with Bristol versus Harlequins, his former club. It was March 2018 when the winger and Quins colleague Marcus Smith were included by Eddie Jones in a 33-man squad to prepare for England’s Six Nations clash with France.

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Five years later, the respective apprenticeships of those two players have turned out very differently. Smith is still thriving at Harlequins and has hogged this Test week’s headlines, dramatically deposing England skipper Owen Farrell of the No10 jersey and being handed the opportunity by current boss Steve Borthwick to entertain in what will be his 21st Test appearance since a July 2021 debut.

In contrast, Ibitoye’s career has taken a very different direction. There appeared to be unworkable differences with Paul Gustard at Quins and a compensation payment was met by Agen to bring the winger over to France in August 2020.

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So began a zany two-year escapade. He finished out that first season at Montpellier, then moved on to Tel Aviv to partake in a Super Cup tournament that unfolded under everyone’s radar except Pat Lam’s.

Having decided to release Niyi Adeolokun, the winger who played for Lam in Connacht’s 2016 PRO12 title-winning team in Ireland before following on to Bristol, the director of rugby was scouring the market for a similar type of finisher when the name of Ibitoye cropped up.

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The DoR did his homework, struck a deal and the now 25-year-old has rediscovered his groove back in England. There was a post-Christmas try back at The Stoop – one of three scores in nine Premiership appearances – and Quins are now in the Ibitoye crosshairs again when they visit Ashton Gate, a Sunday fixture that will mark the winger’s 12th appearance overall for the Bears.

Lam is enjoying the rebound. “I saw Gabriel come though when he was playing for England 20s. I saw him, Mal Malins, and all this talent. He was a Quins player and he played well for them every time we saw them play. For whatever reason, what happened there was he got released and went to France, then played in Tel Aviv.

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“We were looking for a winger his name came through, so we tracked him there and managed to secure him on a two-year contract, so we’re pleased he has come in. You admire talents from afar but when they come in, you get to know the person and he is hugely impressive,” enthused the coach.

“His rugby intellect is class. His communication as a back three player driving guys on in defence, driving guys in the back three, that is organisation that I didn’t expect in the sense that when you see a player, you just see the natural ball in hand and what he does with or without the ball. But certain players have excellent rugby intellect that takes it to another level because they can drive game plan, drive communication, connection – and that is what he does.

“He is impressive, and I believe he is just going to go from strength to strength. Most importantly he is enjoying it here. He came in as an unknown in the sense that he didn’t have too many guys that he played with in the team, and he has fitted in and is part of the furniture now.”

What did Lam make, though, of the post-Harlequins detour Ibitoye embarked on outside England. “He is very much a family man and everything about his rugby is providing for the family, so certainly that time of covid was difficult because of pay cuts and so forth.

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“He was one of the many players that had to make decisions on what was best for him. I think that is ultimately what happened. As far as maturity and all that stuff, I can’t tell you, but from the first time he met us, he was hugely impressive on and off the field and we are very pleased to have him with us.”

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