It was no surprise when I sat down with Gabriel Ibitoye this week to see that he still has a picture of Thierry Henry as the screensaver on his phone. He’s a London boy through and through.
‘It’s been my background since 2015 and I’m not changing it until Arsenal win the league!’ he told me, as we met up at his local cafe in Bristol.
Bristol’s Gabriel Ibitoye speaks to former team-mate Mike Brown on his rugby career so far
Breaking through at Harlequins a few years ago, Gabriel — or ‘Gabs’ as I know him — was a player who loved expressing himself on the pitch. He had serious X factor. Physically he was ripped and he sidestepped all of us at training as a teenager.
He was such an exciting talent — named as Eddie Jones’s England apprentice alongside Marcus Smith — but disappeared from the face of English rugby for a couple of years. Now he’s back, tearing it up on the wing for Bristol, and I wanted to ask him about his time away in France and Tel Aviv.
‘I’d lived in south London my whole life and it felt like the right time to give myself a challenge,’ he told me. ‘You grow up quickly. Things in France didn’t really go as planned because I had a few injuries. I came back in June 2021 and didn’t play a match between June and November.
‘I was very close to joining Glasgow at the end of November. The SRU intervened because they have a quota on the number of Scottish players so it got blocked. The next day I flew out to Tel Aviv. Demetri Catrakilis, our old mate from Quins, was coaching there and gave me a call.
‘Everyone there had been rejected in a way. Fijians, South Africans, English. We got together and thought, ‘You know what, let’s give this a go’. There were a few guys from the Israeli army who were just picking it up. They’d give 110 per cent. They spoke Hebrew their whole lives but were trying their best to speak English on the pitch. It was the best rugby experience of my life. No pressure, go out for a meal and have a sing-song, learning about different cultures.’
Gabs was always an easy-going guy. We were different characters. He could fit into most environments — and would have been an asset to most teams in Europe — and I was curious to know whether it was difficult to step away from the spotlight in such a big way.
Ibitoye has been in beast mode so far for Bristol and could soon get a chance for England
‘We played games all over the place,’ he said. ‘Russia, South Africa, Portugal. Our first match was in Georgia, at 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 would be back at that stadium, scrambling for a job.
‘I arrived in 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. It was a relief because I’d pretty much been out of the game for two years. After the first game I thought, ‘F***, how am I going to get back to that level?’ I’d had no pre-season, not done any tackling. It was a slog, it was hard, but Demitri always believed in me.
‘I was paid per game. Nothing crazy. I would’ve earned way more money in France but my body just wasn’t right. I just wanted to enjoy what I was doing. Some of the boys were straight on the laptop for work. There are times when I’ve complained after training that I’m tired or sore but then you see these guys and it just made you appreciate things all over again.’
Watching Bristol’s games on TV over Christmas, I could see Gabs is enjoying himself on the pitch again. He was in beast mode. Not many wingers in English rugby have his X factor and if he delivers consistent performances then he should come 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 backed Murley and Steward for a while now, and Watson can add his experience now he is back in form. Tommy Freeman can add some versatility from the bench and Jack Nowell is always in the conversation, but Ibitoye could become a bolter later in the year.
‘Last year, Marcus gave me a ticket to England versus 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’ve been to see. It’s a different buzz playing for your country. Playing against France 20s in Beziers, the stadium wasn’t that big but it was nuts. International rugby goes another level.
Ibitoye took a big leap moving to Israel and described it as the ‘best rugby experience’ of his life
‘I’d like to see what level I can hit. I’ll keep trying to make it happen by doing my job for Bristol. I was at the bottom of the pecking order and I had to work my way back. These coaches had no reason to play me. No footage, no GPS data. I had to give them a reason to pick and trust me.
‘I’m pleased I’m getting a run of games. I’m thankful to be back in this position, playing alongside 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 feels a little bit like he’s making up for lost time. It must have been tough to see some of his old colleagues kick on to become international stars from a distance but Gabriel is still only 24.
Ibitoye is a big Arsenal fan and hopes to change his screensaver to Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli if they win the league
I was curious to know if he has any regrets about leaving Quins in the first place. ‘Hindsight’s a wonderful thing,’ he said. ‘If I’d stayed at Quins I might have kicked on, however I went off on a different path and experienced things other guys haven’t. I was happy to see young guys getting recognised and I won’t take any of that away from them, but I always hoped that one day I would get to that stage.
‘This may sound bizarre but one of the first things I said to Pat was that I want to play for England this year. If I aim for the highest level and fall slightly short then I’m still going to be pretty high up. I’ve no regrets. Tel Aviv was a great experience and I loved every minute. France could’ve gone better but I was happy I went out there and hopefully I’ll do it again at some point in my career. Maybe Japan. You never know what’s 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 select Ibitoye for an England squad this year