Justin Tipuric: The quiet Welsh backrow with Croatian roots

The 31-year-old has become a key player for Wales but prefers to shirk the limelight

Justin Tipuric in action against England at Twickenham last year. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Justin Tipuric in action against England at Twickenham last year. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

 

The Welsh like their internal rivalries. Traditionally, these have more often focused on sharply contrasting outhalves but for much of the 2010s, the debate was around the many merits and strengths of Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric.

In many ways, it appeared to be the latter’s misfortune that not only was Warburton a year older, but he also captained Wales 49 times between 2011 and 2016, usually meaning a place on the bench for Tipuric. Not that the public debate was reflected in any personal rivalry, where the respect was always palpable.

Increasingly, Wales resolved the riddle by playing both of them, as was the case when the pair were at their brilliant best in the 2013 Six Nations decider against an England team going for a Grand Slam when their dominance at the breakdown and performances in open play swept Wales to a 30-3 win.

Since Warburton’s injury-enforced retirement after the 2017 Lions tour, Tipuric’s qualities have become more important. He played every minute in the 2019 Grand Slam, as he did in six of Wales’ seven games in reaching the semi-finals and third-place playoff at the World Cup.

There are many strings to Tipuric’s bow, be it his breakdown work, support play and passing. In the 2019 Grand Slam, he also completed 97 per cent of his tackles.

“As a kid I absolutely hated missing tackles,” he once explained. “We could win a game by 40 points but I’d be gutted that I’d missed a tackle.”

Respect

Even so, one senses his value may not be fully appreciated until he is gone. That said, Tipuric clearly has the respect of his peers. In his biography, ‘Fuel’, Seán O’Brien says of the Welsh back-rower: “Justin Tipuric is one of my favourite players. Throughout my career, any time I’ve played against him or with him, he has had the full package and skill set. ‘Tips’ is not the biggest person in the world, but he hits hard, he’s strong over the ball and his skills are by far the best of all the backrowers that I’ve played with. He’s the complete footballer.

“He’s very quick, so if he gets up a head of steam, you’re not going to knock him down easily. He’s an all-rounder and but for his career coinciding with Sam’s, he would have had a lot more caps.”

Yet, ironically, in his last game when at his marauding, ball-carrying best in tandem with Toby Faletau in the Autumn Nations Cup - rounding off the 38-18 win over Italy with his 10th international try - Tipuric was playing in his 81st test, two more than Warburton.

Tipuric is proud of his Croatian ancestry. His grandfather Dragotin Tipuric moved to Morriston when released by the German army after being a prisoner of war. His grandfather found employment at the local coalmine, where he became fondly known as ‘Mad Mike’, and signed up at Trebanos Rugby Club.

As a boy, Tipuric spent some of his summer holidays visiting relatives in Zagreb, where they relocated during the 1991 civil war.

“Everyone says ‘Tipurick’ but it’s actually ‘Tipurich’ in Croatia,” he once explained. “We never got much history out of my grandfather but he spoke a few languages. The story goes that he was an interpreter. He was a big, strong guy . . . much bigger than me!”

Tipuric’s father Andy, a roofer by trade, later captained Trebanos before Justin and his two younger brothers maintained the tradition in the youth teams, as the innate strength was passed down through the bloodline.

“Justin used to try to catch the ball on rollerskates,” his father revealed. “And he’d try to wrestle his granddad. Justin and his brother would hang on his arms but they could never move them, even when he was in his 80s!

“I’ve never come across a man so strong. He worked sinking shafts into hard headings, mining basically, before it all closed down. He was from a place by the river border called Konjic – part of Bosnia now – and was built like a brick ****house!”

Skull cap

It was at Trebanos RFC, situated just beyond the garden in the family home, where Tipuric cut his teeth as a rugby player, and after a mite too many head wounds his mother insisted he wore a skull cap, so he chose a blue one to match the Trebanos colours.

His parents still live in Trebanos, where Tipuric has sometimes coached the juniors.

“It’s nothing really,’ he said, keen to downplay his contribution. “I live in Neath with our two dogs but I’m often back at my parents. It’s only a small village, a mile or so long, so not much happens there. I try to stay away from all the public stuff. I just want to stick to playing rugby.”

There are three pubs in Trebanos, the village which has produced the Lions scrumhalf Robert Jones, Wales centre Bleddyn Bowen, England bowler Greg Thomas and Tipuric.

“They say there’s something in the water!” said Tipuric.

Grounded and unflashy, he is probably the only member of the Welsh squad who doesn’t have a social media account. À la Alun Wyn Jones, he has remained loyal to the Ospreys, whom he now captains, since 2009, playing over 108 games, and last year signed a new three-year deal with his home region.

At 31, a third Lions tour and a third World Cup are well within his compass. Maybe then Tipuric’s all-round excellence and consistency will be fully appreciated.

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