Rua Tipoki: ‘Maori All Blacks are like Munster, their game is based on strong friendships’

Centre made indelible mark on province as they won the Heineken Cup in 2008

For a man who spent just two seasons there, from 2007 to 2009, Rua Tipoki left an indelible mark on Munster, and vice versa.

Such was his impact as a player and a person in those two years that both Ronan O’Gara and Jerry Flannery named sons after him, while Paul O’Connell, Keith Earls and Peter O’Mahony all caught up with him this week, the Irish management invited him in to speak with the squad about the Maori All Blacks and Alan Quinlan was a guest speaker at Tipoki’s club, North Shore Rugby, where he coaches, at a lunch yesterday.

Yet when Tipoki first set foot in Munster in the summer of 2008 there were, he admits, “some dark days”.

He arrived with a niggling hamstring issue and could sense their frustrations as well as his own. But altogether more worrying was the health of his wife Mihi, who was due to give birth to their fourth child soon after their arrival.

“When the doctor came out to me after her examination he said: ‘Worst case scenario you lose them both.’ I had just landed in Cork and it was pretty mind-blowing. I’m getting emotional now thinking about it. I get like this when people ask me about Axel as well,” recalled Tipoki, his eyes welling up at the memory of such a difficult time in his life.

“So Murph (Brian Murphy), our manager, said he and his wife would look after our three kids, and thankfully everything worked out fine. The little fellah (Ngarinu) came out good and Mihi was fine. We named him Paddy for about a week as we were struggling to find a name.

“I showed up injured and at such a difficult time for me and my family on the other side of the world. I knew how keen Munster were to win the Heineken Cup and I said to myself ‘I’m going to do everything I can to help them win that trophy’.”

Hence, Tipoki readily agreed to speak with the Irish squad when O’Connell contacted him.

Now 46, looking as fit as a flea and a mortgage and insurance expert, Tipoki typically afforded The Irish Times over an hour of his time this week.

He describes the Maori All Blacks as “just so similar” to Irish and especially Munster rugby. “A real traditional outlook on the game, based on strong friendships and who you represent and how you should represent them.”

Meeting the Irish squad, he was invariably asked about being part of the Maoris team which beat the British & Irish Lions for the first time ever in 2005.

“That meant everything to me. When I first started playing on the Maori team I thought: ‘I’ve made it. It doesn’t matter what happens now.’ That’s how I felt about it. I explained to the boys that I’m from a little place on the east coast around Gisborne, and that growing up all I wanted to be, was a Maori All Black.”

When a Maori squad assembles it’s an education for the players as they are obliged to explore their roots, heritage, culture and language, something that was previously denied them.

“My father’s generation, for example, would have been caned if they spoke Maori at school. They literally had the language beaten out of them, in the 50s and 60s.”

“I showed the boys a picture of my great grandfather [Te Kooti Reihana] when he went to war [second World War] with a bunch of young Maoris. It’s a photo that motivated me. He’s the only one that came back. All the others in that photo were lost. Whether they came back or not, there was no counselling and the impact on the families was tough.”

Providing a softly spoken history lesson over his coconut flat white, Tipoki talked about the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840, when the British crown acknowledged Maori sovereignty, but how social imbalance remains.

“We’re the worst of all the statistics in the country. We’ve the youngest death rates. We’re more likely to be in jail, more likely to be unemployed, worst for housing, education. The aboriginals are similar. A lot of work has gone has been done but it takes generations.”

Tipoki was based in Japan when it was confirmed that the Maoris would play the Lions in 2005. Immediately he cut short his stay and his earnings, but his wife completely supported him in what was “a once in a lifetime opportunity”.

He joined North Harbour, captaining them to the Ranfury Shield, having been part of the Bay of Plenty team coached by Joe Schmidt which had won the competition in 2004, to earn selection for the Maoris against the Lions.

“I don’t remember much about the game, except how big the Lions were and coming up against Drico and D’Arcy. I remember the build-up more, and the feeling when we won.”

The game was transformed by the introduction of Carlos Spencer two minutes into the second half in what was the outhalf’s last ever game in New Zealand. After the match, O’Gara and O’Connell spoke with Tipoki about joining Munster.

“The story goes that Paul and ROG rang Garrett Fitzgerald to say ‘we found a centre’, but he came back to them and said: ‘We can’t get him, there are discipline issues,’” Tipoki recounted with a laugh.

“If I saw an opportunity I might give a little dig but sometimes it ended up just being a bit too big. That’s why I get on so well with Quinny!”

After an enjoyable season with the Crusaders, in May 2007, Tipoki captained the Maoris to a 50-22 victory over an Ireland ‘A’ team featuring Earls and Johnny Sexton in the Churchill Cup in Exeter. Declan Kidney was in attendance, approached Tipoki after the game and the move to Munster materialised.

Tipoki has Irish ancestry too and his wife’s mother has Irish blood on both sides. With his footwork and strength Tipoki developed a lethal midfield combination with Lifeimi Mafi. His hamstring healed and he played every minute of Munster’s second Heineken Cup triumph, bar a sinbinning in the semi-final against Saracens.

Looking back on his career, Tipoki admits he should have achieved more in New Zealand. “But coming over to Munster, buying into their ethos, and helping them to win the most important trophy made up for that. When we pulled it off I thought ‘this is why I am here and not back in New Zealand. I came here to do this.’”

Munster topped a pool featuring the reigning champions (Wasps) who would win the Premiership that season, a strong Scarlets side and a Clermont team who were runners-up in the French Championship against Toulouse, whom Munster beat in the Cardiff final.

“Man, we earned it. You can watch a team on TV but until you are actually in a team that has that sort of following you just don’t realise how powerful that is.”

The hamstring ended his time with Munster, before he saw out his playing career with East Coast, and he is “excited” for Munster’s future under a new coaching ticket.

Meanwhile the links never stop. Tipoki’s eldest, Naera, played for New Zealand Schools, but has had his rugby ambitions curtailed by a hip injury. Their second, Menahi, is 22 and plays at scrumhalf for North Shore. Their girl Mihi, nicknamed “Budda” is 20 and Ngarinu, now 15, met Doug Howlett’s boy in the same class at school without first realising they had played with each other as nippers in Cork, and are now team-mates.

Every Maori has their own pepehe, which includes their maunga (mountain), awa (river) and iwi (tribe or people). Tipoki has the same “iwi”, Ngati Potou, as Jamison Gibson-Park. They also went to Gisborne Boys High, as did Tipoki’s boys, so he watched Gibson-Park in school games and has followed his career closely.

“I always thought he was a brilliant player. You could see it. Touch rugby used to be a big thing in our town and at times it looks like he’s just playing touch. He’s the conductor out there and then he has Johnny out the back if he doesn’t hit his forwards, and their handling skills are just as good as the backs.”

Tipoki is still struck by how his ex-Munster team-mates are “such students of the game”, citing O’Gara, Flannery, Denis Leamy, James Coughlan, Mike Prendergast and O’Connell. He enjoyed catching up with some old Munster friends this past week. Friends for life too.

“It’s tough being on the other side of the world and I’m not great at picking up the phone and staying in contact but the boys know that our friendships are enduring and real. Even if we’re not there physically, they’re always in our hearts and minds, and that’s the important thing.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times