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Premiership Rugby

France hooker Ibanez signs up for Saracens

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

Before throwing in his lot with the North London outfit, Raphael consulted compatriot and current Saracen Thomas Castaignède, as well as departing Frenchmen Christian Califano and Abdel Benazzi.

"I'm very much looking forward to playing for Saracens and becoming a member of the squad," said Ibanez, who has made 63 appearances for France.

"Getting to know new people is always great and I'm certain that me and my family will enjoy the experience of living and working in England.

"In my move to Saracens I know that I can keep getting better as a player with so many talented players in the squad, and the tough competition in the league. It's hard to imagine exactly what it will be like, but I can't wait to see. I have known the French rugby system for some 10 years, and want this as a rugby challenge.

"Playing in the front row there is a lot of responsibility and it's a tough position, that's why I like it, the contact, the knocks. The game is forever evolving and you must keep up if you want to perform at the highest level."

Born in Dax, Raphael grew up spending most of his time on the basketball court rather than a rugby pitch, basketball being one of the easier sports to participate in as a youngster in the area. It wasn't until the age of 18 that he followed his father, a former Dax hooker in the 70's, into rugby.

From Dax, Raphael moved to Perpignan where he stayed for two years before moving to Castres (former club of Thomas Castaignède and current holders of the Parker Pen Challenge Shield) where he has been playing for the last three years.

Subsequently, Ibanez made his Test debut in March 1996 in the 16-15 Five Nations defeat against Wales in Cardiff.

A year later Ibanez took over the captaincy and led France to back-to-back Grand Slams in 1997 and 1998, before coming under a tremendous amount of pressure as his side hit a huge losing streak, becoming Wooden Spoonists in the 1999 Five Nations Championship.

That was all forgotten when Ibanez inspired his men to a momentous 1999 World Cup semi-final victory over tournament favourites New Zealand to take Les Bleus to their second World Cup Final.

However, after the tournament Ibanez was unceremoniously stripped of the captaincy and dropped as first-choice hooker in place of veteran Marc dal Maso when Bernard Laporte replaced Jean-Claude Skrela as coach, playing just one Test in the whole of 2000.

Despite that setback, Ibanez stormed back into form and into the French team, most recently during the 2003 Six Nations.

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