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The Trebanos Terror: Justin Tipuric

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Forget his physique, Justin Tipuric must be considered Springbok enemy No.1

Justin Tipuric doesn’t do self-promotion.

The most outlandish part of his persona is his bright blue scrum cap, which conversely, is a reminder to stay true to his Swansea Valley roots. Social media? It’s not for him. He’s more likely to be found coaching youngsters at home in Trebanos. You see Tipuric is a throwback. A kid who just wants to play rugby and the result is a profile lower than a Russian sub.

His grandfather Dragotin was Croatian and was released by the Germans during the Second World War. He headed for Wales, where his prodigious size meant he pitched up at the local rugby club, Trebanos as an escape from the long hours working down the pit. The Tipurics have barely left the club since.

As a kid, certain characteristics appealed to him as a rugby player. He looked up to Richard Hill because of the unseen dirty work he did and his commitment to putting the team before personal acclaim.
In his late teens he was a Welsh wunderkind who broke age-grade try-scoring records while packing down as a blindside for Wales, sporting a mullet and chubbier jowls which gave away a predilection for cakes that had to be curtailed when rugby became a serious vocation.

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Physically, he’s no Popeye. He would struggle to shift the sorts of tin his backrow counterparts and gym-rats Josh Navidi and Aaron Wainwright do but his lightweight frame has its benefits. He is easy to flip up, like a circus acrobat, when taking front and back lineout ball and he covers the turf economically, at 400m runner pace, unless he’s in pursuit of a kick-chase as we saw against Georgia. He doesn’t have the heft to put in the leg-driving ‘hits’ so beloved of YouTube – so don’t expect him to knock Duane Vermeulen and Pieter Steph-du-Toit back on their rumps this weekend, but do expect him to pilfer the ball if they give him even a millimetre of space to work with.

Truth is, you’ll struggle to find a savvier player at this World Cup.

When Dan Biggar was gurning in ecstasy like the Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort seconds after booting the ball into the stands at the end of a pulsating quarter-final win over France, Tipuric was, typically, at the bottom of the ruck, with his face in the turf tasting Japanese dirt. Ground level is where he’s happiest and being lofted high onto a pedestal isn’t his bag.

‘Tips’ as he’ universally known has been superlative in this year’s tournament. Against Georgia, he showed his nose for the try-line by showing and going from close range to power over. Against Australia, his leadership, nous to slow up ball, and work with Alun Wyn Jones to hold up big Wallaby ball-carriers, was integral to the rear-guard action. When Wales needed secure ball at the lineout with two minutes to go, Tipuric was the one propelled skywards.

With Biggar’s fitness was a concern, after two successive head injuries, there were semi-serious calls for Tipuric to be cover at No 10 against Uruguay, such is his plethora of gifts. He’s highly regarded by his contemporaries. When this writer asked the tough-tackling England lock Courtney Lawes who was the most skilful player he’d played alongside as a Lion, Tipuric was the first name he mentioned. His long-time adversary for Welsh No 7 shirt, Warburton, magnanimously put him in the top five flankers he’d ever played alongside or with and earlier this month Lawrence Dallaglio, who knows a thing or two about backrow play was fulsome in his praise of the Osprey.

While Tipuric has never been a power merchant his tackle completion is comfortably in the high nineties. After one-to-one work with club defence coach, Brad Davis, in the 2016-17 season, he made 346 tackles and missed seven for a 98 per cent success rate – that’s Jonny Gray territory. Rare is it for a player to have such rounded attacking and defensive skills.

With 70 caps, and stints as Ospreys skipper, he’s added leadership to his skillset and captained Wales against Uruguay for the first time – a nod to the esteem with which he is held and shows how highly he is valued by not only the management but also to his peers. On the field, he has been a beacon of excellence. The no-look pass down the tramlines early on to Josh Adams was sublime and against France, he showed his jackalling skills with a critical turnover after three minutes when Wales were under the cosh by hauling down French No 8 Charles Ollivon with a perfectly executed wrap tackle, springing to his feet, getting over the ball and driving through the gate to drive Antoine Dupont backwards and win possession. It was all done in perpetual motion and textbook Tipuric.

He went through the card for the remainder of the game.

After 26 minutes, his eye for a gap saw him bisecting Romain N’Tamack and Jefferson Poirot making precious yards and seconds after the break, his spin pass from the ruck to Hadleigh Parkes would have done Trebanos legend Robert Jones proud. On 60 minutes, he whipped a 20m pass off his left hand in open play to Aaron Wainwright who stepped Yoann Huget on the right flank, making headway. A watching Jonathan Davies would have nodded away sagely at Tipuric’s passing range.

As Les Bleus held on, he didn’t let up. His pickup, spin and pass to Parkes on 67 minutes was another example of how his rugby brain moves at warp speed. On 73 minutes, when Antoine Dupont was dispossessed with ferocious strip from Tomos Williams, before the French could blurt ‘Sacre bleu’, he was hurtling towards the try-line only to be held up by inches, yet he still had the presence of mind in a high-pressure situation to recycle and that led to Ross Moriarty’s defining score.

The Springboks will have Siya Kolisi pegged down to deal with the Trebanos Terror and he will need to stretch every sinew and shred of grey matter to outwit and outfox his Welsh counterpart at the breakdown, in the tramlines or hanging onto his coat-tails after a kick-chase. He will need his three Shredded Wheat.

Sporadically Tips is reluctantly drawn from the shadows he prefers to patrol but there’s no doubt Tipuric is vying for Wales’ player of the tournament and Sunday could prove a defining moment in his career. The day of the jackal. Don’t bet against it.

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Forget his physique, Justin Tipuric must be considered Springbok enemy No.1