France
The anointment of Raphael Ibanez is French rugby's worst kept secret
Martin Gillingham
April 2, 2015

Let's start by toeing the party line.

At the end of next week French rugby's 'seven sages' will meet at Marcoussis to begin the exhaustive process of selecting the next France coach. It starts with the identification of suitable candidates, moves on to the drawing up of a shortlist, and reaches its climax with a show of hands to determine the winner.

It's all carried out in true, honest democratic fashion by a commission made up of federation president Pierre Camou, his deputy Serge Blanco, and a supporting cast of Jean-Pierre Lux, Jo Maso, Jean Dunyach, Jean-Claude Skrela and Didier Retiere. The wise five - in addition to the dynamic duo - have been selected because of their experience, expertise and willingness to express independent left-field thought. Seven in all, an odd number, ensuring that even in the event of a straight shoot-out between two-men-left-standing there will be no need for the president's casting vote.

If you believe that hogwash then you probably also subscribe to the existence of little green men.

The experience of history, supported by the word on la rue, says there will be no vote. It is Monsieur Camou alone who will choose. And it appears he's already identified his man.

His name? Raphael Ibanez.

The only other member of the commission whose opinion really counts is vice-president Blanco's. The former captain and record try-scorer's main role at the FFR is to provide a link between the federation and the LNR who run the Top 14. He has Camou's ear and when it suits he's happy to throw his weight around. For instance, his dabs have been all over the selection decisions taken by the lame duck incumbent ever since the whitewash tour to Australia. But this time Blanco will not want to interfere. He too supports Ibanez.

Blanco spoke publicly last Friday of the process. He was frank enough in his interview with Canal+ to say that he will be "in contact" with Ibanez as the leading candidate. In a nod to all good beauty contests Blanco chucked in a couple of other names allowing viewers to mull over a final three. They were the Toulouse coach Guy Noves and the once Montpellier golden boy, now recently sacked, Fabien Galthie.

Philippe Saint-Andre speaks to his players
Philippe Saint-Andre speaks to his players© Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

Given Noves is powerless to halt the decline of Europe's richest club while Galthie's stock dropped further in the last three months of 2014 than Tesco's, then neither is a viable candidate. Frankly, it all sounds like a thinly-disguised - even ham-fisted - attempt by Blanco to give credibility to a pre-determined process.

The only genuine alternative to Ibanez, Grenoble's director of rugby Fabrice Landreau, ruled himself out of contention within hours of Blanco's television appearance. The former hooker earned his fourth and final cap for France as a replacement for Ibanez against England at Twickenham in 2001. 14 years on, Landreau has learned that nothing has changed: the best he can hope for is to be second choice to Ibanez.

"Soon we shall know the identity of the lucky one," Landreau said. "But it won't be me."

May 31 is the date pencilled in for the announcement of Philippe Saint-Andre's successor though it seems possible French rugby's worst kept secret may well slip out before then. As a source close to the process said to me this week: "If it isn't Ibanez I'll eat my chapeau."

In fairness, Camou can justly characterise himself as benevolent dictator. Ibanez's selection will meet widespread approval. Saint-Andre's biff-bash-bosh philosophy is the complete antithesis of the elan fostered by Ibanez at Bordeaux-Begles who were promoted to the Top 14 less than four years ago having finished just fifth in PRO D2.

Bordeaux-Begles are now European rugby's best supported team. They operate in profit off a modest budget, and until the last few weeks when, amid deafening whispers of Ibanez's departure the team embarked on a sequence of three straight defeats, they had seemed a shoo-in for both the Top 14 play-offs and next season's Champions Cup.

On the face of it the timing of Camou's process seems odd. To confirm Saint-Andre's departure six months before the focus of his four-year tenure, the World Cup, and to go even further by naming his successor threatens to undermine what little authority he has left. It would be unthinkable in any other top tier nation. Imagine us knowing that, win or lose, Stuart Lancaster is for the chop the moment the World Cup is over and that Conor O'Shea or whoever has already been handed the spare key to his office.

In France it is the power and influence of the clubs which has forced the timing. Ibanez has another year to run on his contract with Bordeaux-Begles and president Laurent Marti is angry at the prospect of being asked to release his head coach three months into the new season.

Last Thursday, at a press conference ahead of the shock home defeat by La Rochelle, Marti went even further by demanding that a deadline be established for the new coach's appointment. Just 24 hours later Blanco gave him his answer.

So what will be the wider ramifications of Ibanez's appointment? For starters, Bordeaux-Begles will need a new manager. French rugby newspaper Midi Olympique claims Marti has already begun his search with current Scotland coach Vern Cotter top of his wish list. A Toulouse-themed combo of current France forwards coach Yannick Bru and Jean-Baptiste Elissalde are in reserve.

Bordeaux-Begles will also need a new defence coach with Ibanez certain to want to take Joe Worsley with him to Paris. The former Wasps team-mates have formed a successful and popular partnership at Bordeaux-Begles. It is a meteoric rise for Worsley whose bold move across La Manche so soon after his own playing career ended has been richly rewarded.

For most English rugby followers it will be difficult to contemplate Worsley wearing anything other than the white of England or Wasps' black and gold. In which case they had better steel themselves for change. France's next competitive meeting with England will most likely be as the climax to the 2016 Six Nations at the Stade de France on March 19 (they play a World Cup warm-up friendly in August later this year). That date falls one day shy of six years after Joe Worsley earned the 77th of his 78 caps. It was in the same fixture at the same venue.

So unless something very strange happens over the coming weeks, English fans and friends of Joe Worsley can reasonably expect to find him back at the Stade de France next March ...wearing bleu.

© Martin Gillingham

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