If you have spent any time watching rugby in the past seven or eight years, the chances are you’ve heard someone joke that Justin Tipuric could probably play centre. The reason for that, of course, is that Tipuric’s sevens’ background, game intelligence, and general skill seem perfectly fitted to allow him to do so.
In the early years of his career, Tipuric was known as one of Wales’ many flair opensides, with his blue scrum cap frequently seen popping up in the wide channels, linking play, offloading, and getting his name on the scoresheet to boot. His jackaling has always been a threat, as has his lineout work, as he only needs one player to lift him, but it was his flair that caught the eye.
In recent years, however, he has been more noticeable for endless grunt work — the type that, were it not for his iconic scrum cap, might go unseen. His tackle count is always one of the highest in the Wales team and, while they might not be “dominant” tackles, he rarely misses one. In fact, in 2017, between Ospreys, Wales, and the Lions, he made 346 tackles and only missed just seven.
His tackle completion at the Rugby World Cup, when Wales consistently invited opposition teams to run at them, backing their defence, was 95% over five games. Not bad when you consider the teams he played included Australia, France, and the eventual winners.
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Now, as new coach Wayne Pivac looks to add some verve to Wales’ attack, it seems both sides of Tipuric’s game could be used to great effect. Despite underwhelming performances from Wales against Ireland and France, Tipuric has been consistently excellent in attack and defence.
LINING UP EVERYWHERE
It is particularly noticeable that Tipuric, an excellent jumper, has rarely been used in the lineout so far in the Six Nations. Instead, Pivac mostly prefers to use him to defend or attack off the throw, where his game intelligence works to maximum effect.
Here, for instance, he waits in the defensive line and tackles Ireland’s Iain Henderson. The double tackle with Taulupe Faletau prevents Ireland’s latch carry from being effective and Wales get the turnover.
Again and again, on Ireland’s throw, Tipuric was used to make a tackle of the first or second phase rather than to contest the throw. He was also often used as a carrier off Wales’ lineouts. At the very end of the game, when Wales have a lineout on the Irish line, he has a slightly different role. He you can see him stand back and wait. It almost looks as though he is ambling towards the Welsh maul but he is actually analysing the situation, waiting for the right moment, and picking his entrance perfectly in order to take the ball and score the try.
Most professional players at this level work pretty hard but Tipuric’s work ethic is something special. According to Sam Larner, rugby analyst and journalist, Tipuric has one of the highest rates for attacking ruck arrivals in the tournament so far. His tackle counts have consistently been at game-high levels and he carries more than most of his fellow Welsh forwards.
Time and again in games, his scrum cap can be spotted making multiple interventions in a few seconds. Here, against Ireland, you can see him take the ball, pass it on before latching onto the carrier, and helping secure the ball.
In the opening 20 seconds against France, he is involved twice in Wales’ move, arriving at the attacking ruck in time to secure the ball before getting back into position to run a line from Dan Biggar. Here, he comfortably picks up the ball and passes it on before arriving at yet another ruck.
In Tipuric’s case, this work isn’t unseen because of his scrum cap but it’s not always obvious how important these small interventions are. His awareness of the game around him and immediate arrival at these rucks helps his team secure the ball and also allows other players to get into position for the next phase. The more players Wales have free, the more options there are in attack.
Here, he makes a tackle and wins Wales a turnover, doing classic openside work. All the momentum was with France at this point and this turnover was important in Wales getting a foothold back in the game as they built up to an equaliser.
CATCHING THE EYE
Of course, picking up all of this grunt work doesn’t mean Tipuric has forgotten how to do the exciting stuff. A player of his calibre is perfectly suited to Pivac’s approach and he has already returned frequently to the wide channels where he can be so effective. Here, against Ireland, he shows he hasn’t forgotten how to pick a lovely line or throw a well-timed offload.
Later, he linked up beautifully down the right wing with Taulupe Faletau, another Welsh forward who is comfortable in the wide channels. Against France, he showed his quick thinking here, recognising that the French players were protesting the free kick rather than moving back 10 metres so he takes the kick quickly, earning a penalty advantage as he does so, and then carries towards the French line to try to take them off-guard.
Unfortunately, Wales couldn’t capitalise on the scrum position he earned them, despite numerous attempts and it is clear that, generally, Pivac’s new approach is going to take time to stick. One player who looks absolutely at home with the approach, however, is Tipuric and it’s no surprise.
High-octane, high-risk attacking game plans like Pivac’s require many of his qualities: not just game intelligence and a wide skill set but the ability to generate fastball in attack and gain turnover ball to turn defence into attack, as well as a huge workrate.
Wales have an astonishingly large group of talented back row options and competition is fierce but it would take some player to dislodge Tipuric from his position, just as it does at the breakdown.
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