Bordeaux hitting the buffers in Top 14
Why pressure is mounting on Bordeaux coach Raphael Ibanez
The stats are startling. When Bordeaux thrashed La Rochelle 26-0 on 19 November they moved into second spot in the Top 14, just four points behind their west coast rivals. They haven’t won a league match since, losing five and drawing one in a six-match winless streak that has seen them slide to ninth spot, 19 points behind La Rochelle, who continue to set the pace.
More significantly, Bordeaux (beaten at home on Saturday 29-17 by Castres) are now seven points shy of Pau, who occupy sixth position, the last of the play-off places. With only eight rounds in the regular Top 14 season remaining, time is running out for Bordeaux to secure their spot in the knockout phase but it will be no easy task; five of their eight matches are away, including trips to La Rochelle, Brive and Racing.
Bordeaux have finished seventh in the last two seasons and anything inferior to that position come May could have serious ramifications for Raphael Ibanez, who arrived at the club in the summer of 2012, a season after they had climbed into the Top 14.
The talk then from the former France hooker was of a long-term development programme, backed by president Laurent Marti, and for the first few seasons everything went to plan. Twelfth in 2012-13, Bordeaux finished eighth the following season and then seventh in the two campaigns that followed. This season, bolstered by the summer arrival of Ian Madigan, Luke Jones and Jayden Spence, the plan was supposed to have them challenging for a top-four finish – but it hasn’t happened, and Ibanez has only himself to blame.
From the start of the season he’s made a series of bad decisions and crass statements, creating tension within his club and within French rugby. It started in September, in the post-match press conference following Bordeaux’s defeat of Bayonne. There had been some words in the build-up to the match by Vincent Etcheto, the Bayonne manager fired as Bordeaux’s backs coach the previous year. Instead of ignoring the comments Ibanez reacted childishly, warning Etcheto not to provoke him “because the game of soundbites could become physical”.
He should also have refrained from going public in his criticisms of Ireland fly-half Madigan, using an interview with Midi Olympique on 16 December to declare “we have the right to expect more (from him), that’s clear”.
Such opinions should be kept private, particularly as they came from a coach who five days earlier had prioritised his television commitments over his coaching ones. So while Bordeaux travelled to a cold, foggy Exeter to play a Sunday night Champions Cup fixture, Ibanez was enjoying the sunshine in the Cote d’Azur working as a co-commentator on the Toulon v Scarlets game. When Midi Olympique asked him about the decision, Ibanez snapped: “All this moralising makes me smile… we are in a society that likes to judge.”
Bordeaux beat Exeter but a week later lost at home in the return fixture, a defeat that cost them the chance to qualify for the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup. Is it just a coincidence that Bordeaux’s decline accelerated after their head coach put his media work before his coaching duties? When a leader loses the respect of his men, it’s rare that he regains it.
It’s a little reminiscent of what happened to Fabien Galthie in 2014 when the then Montpellier coach jetted out to Brazil to help French business tycoon Serge Kampf celebrate his 80th birthday. He left his assistants to oversee the Top14 clash with Oyonnax and upon his return to France, Galthie was dismissive of his critics in comments similar in tone to the ones used by Ibanez. “I know what sort of society we live in and this fuss conforms precisely to our society today,” said Galthie. He was sacked two months later after Montpellier lost eight of their nine matches.
Ibanez should perhaps take a few moments to reflect on the fate of Galthie, a man who works as a consultant for the same TV station. Both were great players and charismatic captains of their country, and both are erudite and engaging television consultants who know how to use the media to their advantage. The pair are also talented coaches but with a reputation for questionable communication skills; since leaving Bordeaux last summer Sofiane Guitoune and Felix Le Bourhis have been critical of Ibanez’s management style.
For now it’s the players who are leaving Bordeaux with Adam Ashley-Cooper off at the end of the season and Madigan also wanting out. But if Bordeaux don’t start winning, it could be the coach heading towards the exit.
For the latest Rugby World subscription offers, click here.