We chart the Ospreys, Wales and Lions back-row’s journey from a small village to the top of the rugby world
The making of Justin Tipuric
“Every Sunday morning he asked me if he could play No 10 and every week I refused,” says Chris Penhale of his days coaching a 13-year-old Justin Tipuric at Trebanos RFC. “One week, when a few players didn’t turn up, we did start him at ten and he did a decent job – he’d do a better job now!”
It’s a recurrent theme with Tipuric, how his skill-set wouldn’t be out of place in the backs, but it’s his work-rate up front that helped Wales to their latest Six Nations title – he was the top tackler as they won the 2021 championship, too, with 86.
His modesty and humbleness are other common threads when talking to those who have been involved in his journey, as is his love of Trebanos. The blue scrum cap is worn in their honour while he has long coached various teams at the club, with chairman Penhale saying: “He knows where his roots are and likes to give something back. He hasn’t changed at all.”
Rugby World talks to others about Tipuric’s route to the top of the game, which will see him embark on a third British & Irish Lions tour this summer.
The making of Justin Tipuric
Justin Jones was Tipuric’s first rugby coach at Trebanos RFC in the 1990s
“I first came across Justin when he’d just turned eight. I’d played for Trebanos and was about to start a junior section there. I was taking my two sons to the park and they said I should do an up-and-under for Justin. I kicked the ball up in the air and this eight-year-old came up on roller blades to catch it with two hands. I did a few and he caught every one.
“His father, Andy, used to captain the first team when I played. He had a bet with Justin that he’d never get on the (honours) board as Trebanos captain like him; it was quite shrewd – he’s gone all the way but hasn’t captained Trebanos!
“I remember my boys would be out in their Swansea kit but Justin was always watching Super Rugby, so he’d have one of those kits on, like the Hurricanes. His favourite player was Richard Hill – a quiet guy who got on with his work.
“One thing that sticks in my mind is that whenever I was speaking, he was always staring right at me, listening, while the other 20 eight-year-olds were climbing trees! The other thing that stood out is that he was very skilful and had a natural tackling technique; he always found it very easy to tackle.
“I remember we played Bonymaen U11 and they had this guy ‘Big Jamie’, who was 5ft 10in at 11. No one could tackle him, he was ploughing through everyone, but Justin never missed him, he always got him round the ankles.
“He could kick, pass and tackle, and he’s ridiculously strong like his dad. We played him in the back row and at ten and 12 because he’s so, so skilful. If you put him in the back row, he’d stand at ten and if you put him at ten, he’d be going into rucks!
“I coached him right through to the U15s, when he’d settled in the back row, but then we started losing numbers and had to fold. We sent players to other clubs but he loved Trebanos so much he didn’t want to play for another club. He gave up rugby for a year and played football; people say he could have made it as a goalkeeper. He then came back at 16-17 when we had a youth team.
“I’ve gone full circle now and started coaching again with my youngest and Justin does three or four sessions a year for me. He always does skills and has helped me out a lot with coaching. He makes time for the village and the club.”
Dan Cluroe taught and coached Tipuric at Swansea College
“He was very quiet and shy when he came to us, but he was also quite mature in a way and got jokes some of the other 16-year-olds didn’t. He came to life on the rugby field and had some of the biggest hands I’d ever seen!
“He did a BTEC Level Three Sport and you’d have to really push him to take questions or say something in class. He didn’t like any attention but he’d never not do his homework.
“At the time we didn’t have a separate rugby course, but we were almost running an academy structure. He came into a strong, well-established team – Leigh Halfpenny was there – and had to work his way up from the second team, although it was very clear he was a first-team player after a couple of games.
“His skill-set was just another level. He played centre a number of times for us as well as back-row. He had an awesome rugby brain and would read the game very well – not many boys can transfer between the back row and centre at 16-17.
“He was very skilful but there is one blooper I remember from a tournament we played at Warwick University. Against Colston’s, Tips did one of the worst clearing kicks I’ve ever seen, straight down the throat of their full-back, who scored a try.
“He started training with the Ospreys during that first year and established himself in his second year. They tried to bulk him up but that didn’t suit his game, he’s very athletic. Then he played sevens and they stripped it right off him, so he was back to the machine you see now.”
When Tipuric made his Ospreys debut in 2009, Sean Holley was head coach
“Justin had played through the academy and was really impressing. We always did due diligence, so me and the coaches knew about the academy players and we’d spend time watching the Welsh Premiership where we’d farm boys out – we sent Justin down to Aberavon – and Wales U18 and U20.
“I remember (performance director) Andrew Hore not making much of how he looked. He’s never been unfit – he’s got a brilliant engine – but he didn’t look like a professional rugby player. Andrew said that if Justin ever played for the Ospreys first team he’d eat raw eggs, so after we’d picked him I brought some eggs to the next management meeting. He ate them to be fair!
“From Justin’s first game we could see his impact; he was very effective. He was also very quiet and unassuming. In those early-ish days, we made him captain for games when internationals were away to bring him out of his shell and develop him as a leader.
“Both Marty Holah and Filo Tiatia did a lot to help develop Justin, doing extras after training and going through games. Filo and Marty would always be first out and last in, and Justin picked up on that. The first port of call with New Zealanders is always the catch and pass. They also looked at the jackal when it first came to prominence; Marty was brilliant at it – grappling, reading the hit, the nuances.
“We used to train the sevens with the backs if they weren’t needed for certain lineout work and if we went for a six-two split on the bench we knew Justin could cover the backs. I always came up with a contingency for if we had a yellow or red card; if we lost a back and needed somebody in defensive or attacking situations, like off scrums, we’d put Justin in the backs and play with seven forwards; we had a good front five then.
“He always produces high-impact, big moments – in attack and defence. Then there’s his leadership now, his set-piece, he can kick the ball… He’s one of the best players I’ve ever worked with.”
Dan Lydiate has played both with and against Tipuric over the past decade
“I first remember Justin from Wales’ World Cup training camp in 2011. He was always killing fitness, he was fitter than anyone. I remember thinking, ‘Jesus, he’s got a hell of an engine’. He’s just a naturally fit bloke; when he runs he looks like it’s effortless whereas the rest of us forwards are trundling along.
“I have one story of playing against him. As we were setting a scrum, we were chatting, ‘Alright Tips’, ‘Alright Lyds, how’s it going?’ Then the next minute he comes flying up the side of the scrum and lifts me over the top of it. I was tamping! He’s the ultimate competitor.
“He’s one of those annoying guys who is good at everything. He’s technically gifted – he was a goalkeeper as a kid so his hand-eye coordination is quality and he’s one of the best passers in the team. People don’t give him credit for how good he is around the contact area. He doesn’t look like a massive guy, but it’s how strong he is and the work he gets through. Especially in the last couple of years with Wales, it’s the unseen work.
“He’s comfortable carrying in the wide channels and his decision-making is on point; he’ll fix the player and give someone else the space to go round. He’s got a good kicking game and as a lineout forward he’s the best jumper I know. I’d probably go as far as saying he’s the best player I’ve played with.
“He’s a really tough bloke and he’s a good leader as well, especially over the last couple of years at the Ospreys and he’s had the chance to captain Wales on occasions. He’s quite a calming influence and he obviously knows his rugby.
“He’s got 80-odd caps and been on two Lions tours, but he’s so humble. He’s happy going about his business, letting his performances on the field do the talking for him. He’s a massive family man, a really private bloke – he doesn’t have social media – but he’ll always be there for you. I can’t speak highly enough about the guy.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2021 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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