He's been labelled one of the biggest nemesis of the All Blacks — but France's former rugby captain Raphael Ibanez took less than 24 hours to be embraced as a local in Whangamata.

The 98-test veteran moved into town on July 12 with his family.

He will spend four months soaking up Coromandel life and New Zealand grassroots rugby wisdom as assistant coach to the Thames Valley Swamp Foxes, before returning to France where he'll lead French rugby for the next four years leading into the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

With little time to rest from the 26-hour flight, Raphael was immediately introduced to the town by rugby legend Leon Holden who was raised in Whangamata and coached for Raphael when he captained the London WASPS 10 years ago.


"He already had fond memories of his childhood here and insisted on the Thames Valley board to welcome the family here in this beautiful place because he knew it would really suit us, and he was right. This is a perfect place for us," Raphael said.

He says the first two days of his arrival made the family feel right at home.

"It was incredible when we arrived at 3am because the next morning, most of Leon's friends knocked on the door to ask if we needed anything," says the 46-year-old.

Raphael and family — wife Sandra, daughter Clara (21), son Mateo (19), daughter Marie (16) and "the little one", son Julian (14) — were driven from surf shop to cafe haunts, connecting with Whangamata Area School's head PE teacher Brendan Mckeown, surfing stalwarts Pete Mitchell and Ben Kennings, and gym owner and rugby coach Gareth Coslett.

Raphael then flew with the Thames Valley team for their biggest challenge yet — the Ranfurly Shield challenge in Wanaka on Saturday. Otago won 41-21 after two tries either side of halftime effectively wiped out a 13-point lead that Thames Valley deservedly held.

"I was really impressed with the boys' performance, facing an immense task they delivered and gave it everything they had," says Raphael. "It was great to watch."

Having the French rugby great on their sideline was "fantastic," says Thames Valley Rugby Vice-chairman Ross Cooper.

"It's wonderful for us. He's going to come and help us on our team and will be going around primary schools and working with some of our representative teams and no doubt visiting Waihi and Whangamata rugby games."


On 20 July in Whangamata Raphael was with his sons Mateo and Julian, who are both training and playing for Whangamata Rugby Club teams.

Mateo was given clearance by French Rugby to play for the Red and Whites' home game.

Immersing themselves in town life and enjoying the surf while respecting the locals is the intention while they're here, says Raphael. Three of his four children also surf.

"When I retired from the game 10 years ago I thought about finding a sport that would really suit me and help me stay fit and positive.

"In the end it was all about the outdoors sport, so skiing in the winter and surfing all year is perfect for me.

"With skiing and surfing it's freedom and enjoyment and appreciation of the surroundings, so it's more discovery, more like a way of life.

"I try to find the balance and the balance is perfectly right here. I will spend most of my time in Thames Valley rugby but also enjoying what this region and town can offer."

The family live in Dax in France's Pays Basque on the Southwest coast, surfing the renowned beach break Hossegor.

They caught some of the pumping swell on Saturday, with wetsuits given to daughter Clara from top New Zealand surfer and local Ben Kennings.

Raphael is a rugby celebrity and media commentator, who has turned down interviews with media giants but came into the Coastal News office happy to oblige an interview so he could thank everyone for the kindness already shown, which began with Murray Cleland of Whangamata Real Estate helping him to find a home.

"The purpose of the experience was of course rugby but as the family has joined me, they'll be totally involved in the local community. That's the plan, and it's fantastic so far."

Clara is a very good horse rider, the three other kids are surfers and his sons are "mad for fishing".

"This place is a dream place to live and to be honest, especially in winter time."

On rugby, he says: "Through all my rugby career, in charge with captaincy and responsibilities, it's a huge honour to be France Captain for 10 years but I've always believed whether amateur or professional stage, it's the same sport, just a different intensity on the field.

"I've been lucky to play against the All Blacks many times. We managed to beat them twice in the World Cup in 1999 and 2007 ... and I've always been very respectful of what New Zealand Rugby has done."

The Heartland Championship in New Zealand where Thames Valley Rugby will be playing will have a lot to teach him, he says.

He looks forward to again experience a sense of freedom to speak and gain knowledge.

"I know once back in France I will have a lot of work ahead of me to try to change a few things in French rugby, especially the relationship between clubs and the national side, which can really affect the game at the international stage at the moment in France.

"Clubs pay for the players, so they've got the power, they decide what to do with their players, and that really weakens the national side.

"French rugby unfortunately for the last 10 years based its rugby on the economy which is great for people involved in the game, but we tend to forget the purpose of the game.

"Instead we should base our rugby now on ideas. We need to have a new and fresh approach."

He wanted to thank Ross Cooper, head coach Matt Bartlett and Warren Gatland, who supported Raphael's candidacy for Thames Valley.

"I try to find the balance and the balance is perfectly right here. I will spend most of my time in Thames Valley rugby but also enjoying what this region and town can offer."