It was no surprise when I sat down with Gabriel Ibitoye this week to find that he still has Thierry Henry’s picture as screensaver on his phone. He is a boy from London.
‘This has been my background since 2015 and I’m not changing it until Arsenal win the league!’ he told me, as we met in his local cafe in Bristol.
I hope it will be this year… then I will replace Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli! Flowing football, young players expressing themselves on the pitch, a young manager, it’s class.’
Bristol’s Gabriel Ibitoye talks to former teammate Mike Brown about his rugby career so far
Coming into Harlequins a few years ago, Gabriel — or ‘Gabs’ as I know him — was a player who wanted to express himself on the pitch. He had a serious X factor. Physically he was ripped and he sidelined us all in training as a teenager.
He was an exciting talent – named as Eddie Jones’s England apprentice alongside Marcus Smith – but disappeared from the face of English rugby for several years. Now he’s back, tearing it up for Bristol, and I want to ask him about his time in France and Tel Aviv.
‘I’ve lived in south London all my life and I felt the time was right to give myself a challenge,’ he told me. ‘You grow up so fast. Things in France didn’t really go according to plan because I had a few injuries. I came back in June 2021 and didn’t play a match between June and November.
‘I’m about to join Glasgow at the end of November. The SRU intervened as they had a quota on the number of Scottish players so it was blocked. The next day I flew to Tel Aviv. Demetri Catrakilis, our old mate from Quins, was teaching there and called me.
‘Everyone there was rejected in some way. Fijians, South Africans, English. We got together and thought, ‘You know, let’s give it a go’. There were some guys from the Israeli army who just took it. They will give 110 percent. They have spoken Hebrew all their lives but they try to speak English on the pitch. It was the best rugby experience of my life. No pressure, going out to eat and sing, learning about different cultures.’
Gabs is always easy to get along with. We have different characters. He can fit into most environments – and would be an asset to most teams in Europe – and I’d like to know if it’s difficult to step away from the spotlight in such a big way.
Ibitoye is in beast mode at the moment for Bristol and will soon get a chance for England
‘We play all over the place,’ he says. ‘Russia, South Africa, Portugal. Our first match was in Georgia, in the same stadium where I played in the 2017 Junior World Cup. I was nominated for young player of the year after that. I never thought I’d be back in that stadium, vying for work.
‘I came to Georgia for the first game and Pat Lam texted me in October asking for a chat about Bristol. That gave me some peace of mind. I was relieved because I had been out of the game for almost two years. After the first game I thought, ‘F***, how am I going to get back to that level?’ I didn’t have a pre-season, didn’t do any tackling. It was a slog, it was hard, but Demitri always believed in me.
‘I get paid per game. No defect. I would have earned more in France but my body was not right. I just want to enjoy what I’m doing. Some of the guys go straight to the laptop for work. There were times when I complained after training that I was tired or sore but then you see these people and it makes you appreciate it all over again.’
Watching Bristol’s games on TV over Christmas, I saw Gabs enjoying himself on the pitch again. He’s in beast mode. Not many wingers in English rugby have the X factor and if he delivers consistent performances, he should break into the international mix.
For me, Cadan Murley, Anthony Watson and Freddie Steward should be England’s starting back-three in the Six Nations. I’ve been backing Murley and Steward for a while now, and Watson could add his experience now that he’s back in form. Tommy Freeman could add some versatility off the bench and Jack Nowell is always in the conversation, but Ibitoye could be a bolter later in the year.
‘Last year, Marcus gave me a ticket to England against Ireland in the Six Nations, the game with the red card, and the atmosphere was crazy,’ he said. ‘It was the first England game I ever saw. It’s a different buzz playing for your country. Playing against France 20s in Beziers, the stadium wasn’t that big but it was crazy. International rugby is on a different level.
Ibitoye has made a big move to Israel and described it as the ‘best rugby experience’ of his life
‘I want to see what level I can reach. I will continue to try to do this by doing my job for Bristol. I was at the bottom of the pecking order and had to work my way back. These coaches have no reason to play me. No footage, no GPS data. I have to give them a reason to choose and trust me.
‘I’m glad I’m getting a run of games. I’m grateful to be back in this position, playing next to guys like Semi Radradra, sitting next to Kyle Sinckler in the locker room. The style of play here, keeping the ball alive, it’s a buzz.’
It’s a bit like he’s making up for lost time. It must be hard to see some of his former teammates starting to become international stars from afar but Gabriel is only 24.
I was curious to know if he had any regrets about leaving Quins in the first place. ‘Hindsight is a wonderful thing,’ he said. ‘If I had stayed at Quins, I might have kicked out, however I ended up on a different path and experienced things no one else had. I’m glad to see the young people meet and I’m not going to take any of that away from them, but I always hope that one day I’ll get to that stage.
‘It may sound strange but one of the first things I said to Pat was that I wanted to play for England this year. If I aim for the highest level and drop slightly, I’ll still be pretty high. I have no regrets. Tel Aviv was a great experience and I loved every minute. France could have been better but I’m happy I went out there and hopefully I’ll do it again at some point in my career. Maybe Japan. You never know what lies ahead.’
Knowing Gabs, he’ll take it all in his stride, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in one of Steve Borthwick’s squads this year.
It would be no surprise to see Steve Borthwick pick Ibitoye for an England squad this year