‘Massive hands’, beats defenders and high work-rate: Gabriel Ibitoye could be England wildcard

Gabriel Ibitoye
Gabriel Ibitoye enjoyed the best season of a hitherto peripatetic career - Ryan Hiscott/Getty Images

Bristol Bears ended their Premiership campaign in appropriately swashbuckling style, plundering seven tries and registering just five kicks from hand as Harlequins were hit for a half-century.

Without a historic win for Sale Sharks at StoneX Stadium, Pat Lam’s charges would have extended their campaign by earning a play-off berth. Regardless, the past three months have endorsed Bristol’s bid to rediscover themselves since the Six Nations break.

Gabriel Ibitoye, their roaming wing with a penchant for holding the ball in a single mitt, has been integral to a resurgent Bears side. And Lam is convinced that the 26-year-old could conjure the same magic in Test matches as an England wildcard.

Ibitoye is an erstwhile Eddie Jones apprentice who had brief spells at Agen, Montpellier and even Tel Aviv Heat after leaving Harlequins in 2020. This season, rubber-stamped by a try-scoring display at Twickenham Stoop, has been the best of an intriguing career to date.

He is currently top of the Stats Perform charts in Premiership action for both defenders beaten, with 73, and metres gained, with 1,452m. Only Tommy Freeman, with 19, has bettered his total of 17 line-breaks.

Gabriel Ibitoye of Bristol Bears is tackled by Oscar Beard
Oscar Beard takes down Ibitoye during Bristol's commanding victory over Quins - David Rogers/Getty Images

Asked whether Harry Randall, another stand-out of Saturday afternoon, could break back into the England fold following Danny Care’s international retirement, Lam pressed the case of Ibitoye vigorously. More than that, he urged Steve Borthwick to build on a bright end to the Six Nations in upcoming meetings with Japan and New Zealand.

“Steve knows about Harry, he brought him in at the end [of the Six Nations],” Lam said. “He’s electric, but I also want to talk about Gabs Ibitoye. He’s beaten more defenders than anybody and his growth [has been impressive]. We challenged him around getting more involved in the game after Christmas and in this period. And he’s been superb.

“I keep thinking if you’ve got [Immanuel] Feyi-Waboso on this wing, Gabs on that wing and Harry Randall with [Alex] Mitchell… with the way England want to go, you’ve got some serious firepower there. Not many people have talked about him, but just look at the stats.

“I see what he does in attack and defence with his understanding of the game. He creates things all the time. Hopefully he gets a look in. If not, hey, good pre-season, go again.”

Despite a reputation for conservatism and kick-pressure, Borthwick has shown himself willing to fast-track unproven wings during his short tenure as England head coach so far. This has yielded mixed results. Ollie Hassell-Collins was not able to impose himself in his two appearances last year, whereas Immanuel Feyi-Waboso thrived 12 months later, scoring from the bench against Scotland this year before starring in a defeat of Ireland.

Pat Lam during the warm-up
Pat Lam has empowered Ibitoye to play instinctively within the team framework - Bob Bradford/CameraSport via Getty Images

England showed greater urgency and ambition in the second of those matches, particularly when returning opposition kicks, and consolidated that with another bright attacking performance despite a loss to France in Lyon.

Chandler Cunningham-South, a bopping back-rower rather than a wing, would represent an example of Borthwick selecting a player of exciting potential and power with the aim of moulding them into a Test regular. Ibitoye possesses the athleticism and agility that could become a weapon in Felix Jones’ blitz defence.

In the 25th minute against Harlequins on Saturday, he shot in from his wing and pounced on a loose pass to canter under the posts. Much earlier, Ibitoye had surged down Bristol’s left flank to within five metres of the try-line with his first touch, setting up a score for James Williams. Generally, he weaves around the pitch in an unconventional manner, flicking one-handed passes or darting towards gaps. Lam has trusted Ibitoye’s instincts to flourish within the Bears’ framework.

“I [always] think he’s going to back himself,” said Lam of Ibitoye. “That’s the thing. His hands are massive. He can offload, he can make things out of nothing. Some teams would just go down, ruck, ruck, ruck, slow the ball down, kick.

“For us, we look to offload, then go quick and go from slow to fast [ball]. He is a big part of that. His work-rate, especially in this last part of the season, has gone to another level; it’s been of international level.”

New-found durability, credited to gym work and additional mass, has helped Ibitoye string together 17 Premiership starts this season.

“There have been a lot of X-factor guys and the big thing for him is his work-rate and how much he is involved,” Lam added. “The stats don’t lie. That’s why he’s way up there. He beats people for fun. When he’s down the sideline and people try to get him out, some big guys, that’s some serious strength he has.

“It’s a real credit to our S and C department, because he had a history of hamstring and calf [injuries] but they put a lot of build in his body and, since then, he hasn’t had any injuries. It’s been class.”

Tom Roebuck of Sale, Will Muir of Bath and the Northampton Saints duo of Ollie Sleightholme and George Hendy have been other prospective England wings to catch the eye during a captivating Premiership season. Freeman, Feyi-Waboso and Elliot Daly, all of whom featured out wide during the Six Nations, have been in good form as well. Competition remains encouragingly fierce.

This coming Sunday, Borthwick will unveil a training squad from players in the six clubs not to have reached the Premiership play-offs. While it may have little bearing on the England line-ups that eventually take on Japan and the All Blacks, the presence of Ibitoye would reward a series of free-spirited performances that have devastated domestic defences and caught the imagination.