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FEATURE Can Wales ever truly replace the Trebanos terror?

Can Wales ever truly replace the Trebanos terror?
1 year ago

No one ever did get around to counting the number of man-of-the-match gongs Brett Sinkinson won for Neath during his stay in Welsh rugby between 1998 and 2004.

But for those sports writers charged with compiling live copy from The Gnoll for the local Saturday night Green ’Un, aka The Sporting Post, his presence in the Welsh All Blacks side was a godsend because no matter how much of the game the pressmen truly saw – and it wasn’t always easy to count every tackle, turnover, carry or chargedown when attempting a 900-word match report as a match unfolded – the certainty was the player wearing the black No. 7 shirt would always be there or thereabouts as his team’s best player.

If there was any doubt about who should receive the star-choice bouquet in Monday’s newspaper, Sinkinson’s name could be offered up safe in the knowledge that the green-ink brigade wouldn’t bother to raise an argument on the letters’ page the following Friday.

At times during his career, Justin Tipuric has seemed an equally reliable player-of-the-game option for hard-pressed hacks to fall back on, a player who has rarely let his performance level drop below an eight out of 10. At times during the Ospreys’ 2022-23 European campaign, he banged in a series of displays that were off the scale in terms of excellence. Others in the Welsh region’s team came to the party, too – of course they did – but no-one else performed as consistently well for the Swansea.com Stadium side during a Heineken Champions Cup campaign that saw them double French champions Montpellier and beat the then English title holders Leicester Tigers at their Welford Road stronghold.

What a thump in the solar plexus for Wales, then, that the man in the blue hat recently  announced his retirement from international rugby. Warren Gatland has plenty of openside options, but none of them boast the experience and all-round skillset of the 93-cap Tipuric. Had any of Wales’ World Cup pool opponents been given the option of tweezering a Welsh player out of the mix for the global tournament in France this autumn, the Ospreys’ captain would surely have been high on the list of contenders for such treatment.

Justin Tipuric
Justin Tipuric will be a big miss in the Wales squad for the World Cup in France (Photo by David Ramos/ Getty Images)

But Australia, Fiji, Georgia and Portugal won’t have to worry about the man from the Swansea Valley village of Trebanos now. “During the off-season I’ve had time to reflect on my playing career and now seems the right time to step away from international rugby,” Tipuric said in a statement.

“It’s been a privilege to put on the Welsh jersey and have so many great memories.

“I’d like to thank all the players and coaches that I’ve been fortunate enough to work with over the years and the wonderful support I’ve received from the Welsh public.

“I’m looking forward to spending more time at home and putting all my energies into playing for my home region the Ospreys.”

Let’s agree that Wales’ loss is the Ospreys’ gain.

That said, why make the call just months out from a World Cup?

Modest to his core, Tipuric probably wouldn’t have even bothered to read the next morning’s newspapers, let alone spend hours trawling the internet to see what people were saying about him.

Conspiracy theorists wasted no time getting to work, with multiple suggestions advanced as the ‘real’ reason for the decision. The man himself hasn’t shed further light on the matter. Perhaps a range of factors came together at once and at 33 Tipuric simply decided enough was enough. Certainly, priorities and assessments change as players get older and family matters can assume greater significance.  Maybe, after a spell that saw a couple of nasty injuries, he’d reached the stage where he genuinely felt the Test scene, with its protracted camps and all that comes with them, was no longer for him.

Maybe we’ll never know much more, for Tipuric is not one for grand revelations and throwing the doors open on his life and his inner thoughts.

Indeed, it probably suited him that his long-time Ospreys and Wales team-mate Alun Wyn Jones chose to announce his Test retirement on the same day. Some would have felt a shade slighted that most of the attention was on the lock, but that isn’t the way Tipuric works. Modest to his core, he probably wouldn’t have even bothered to read the next morning’s newspapers, let alone spend hours trawling the internet to see what people were saying about him.

Justin Tipuric
Alun Wyn Jones’ high-profile retirement from rugby took the attention away from Tipuric, which is just how he likes it (Photo by Huw Fairclough/Getty Images)

But Wales will miss him.

How much? Well, in assessing the Cwmtawe Comprehensive School product, his first head coach at the Ospreys, Sean Holley , brought  legendary Wales back-rower Dai Morris, aka The Shadow, into the conversation. For those of a certain vintage, Morris remains one of the greatest Wales loose forwards, a player who seemed to cover every blade of grass not just once during a game but three or four times during his pomp in the 1960s and early 1970s.

“You can’t replace Justin like for like,” said Holley, nowadays a much-respected pundit, who gave Tipuric his Ospreys debut in 2009.

“He’s a modern-day Dai Morris.

“Maybe Justin’s even better because of his leadership. He can play at six and seven, even at No. 8 if you need him to because of his skills.

What other No. 7 in world rugby scores tries like we’ve seen him score, with chips over the top or brilliant support play of the sort he showed against England at Twickenham in 2020

Sean Holley

“I have all the time in the world for him and I don’t see anyone like him.

“If you look at the Wales and Ospreys flanker Jac Morgan, you see a bit of Sam Warburton in him.

“You look at Tommy Reffell and maybe you see a bit of a young Dan Lydiate in him with his ferocity and hunger and willingness to put his body on the line.

“But there’s no like for like for Tips currently playing.

“He’s a once-in-a-generation player.

“What other No. 7 in world rugby scores tries like we’ve seen him score, with chips over the top or brilliant support play of the sort he showed against England at Twickenham in 2020, when he covered 80-odd metres before touching down.  I can’t think of any other openside who can do those things and score tries like he’s come up with. Maybe Ireland’s Josh van der Flier is as close as you are going to get, but he doesn’t have the footballing skills of Justin.”

Jac Morgan
At 23, Jac Morgan has the tools to step up in Justin Tipuric’s absence, but no one boasts his skillset (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

All of which would probably embarrass Tipuric, whose lack of self-importance is one of the defining traits of his character. But the years have served him well as a player. In his early days, he became known for his play in the wide channels, even if it was an overly simplistic take on what he offered. But, gradually, there was recognition for his resolve in defence. When he is on his feet, opponents find it harder to break the defensive line.  When he is out of the game, it is time for his team’s supporters to look away. His rugby intelligence is another distinguishing feature.

No-one is indispensable, of course, but Wales are likely to find it more challenging to do without Tipuric than perhaps some realise.

That said, Morgan, Reffell, Taine Basham and Josh Macleod are all fine players.

Morgan, for instance, has developed as a carrier while retaining his toughness in defence and quality at the breakdown, while Reffell is known as Tommy Turnover for a reason. Macleod, too, is expert over the ball and Basham is capable of game-changing Hollywood moments but is also happy to man the trenches.

Potentially, Wales could take six back rowers to France. The assumption is one of the spots already has Taulupe Faletau’s name on it, but the other places are there to be claimed.

“I think Jac is magic, a great talent,” said Holley. “He’s good over the ball, has an eye for the game and reads play well. He also scores tries, like Justin.

“I think Josh probably edges all the young guys over the ball, although there’s nothing in it and Tommy and Jac are right up there with him.

“Taine Basham is explosive and makes an impact. He’s not the footballer that Justin is and doesn’t make the same lineout contribution, but he’s another boy who can play six, seven and eight.”

Potentially, Wales could take six back rowers to France. The assumption is one of the spots already has Taulupe Faletau’s name on it, but the other places are there to be claimed.

“If they take two opensides, my guess is one of them will be Reffell,” said Holley. “He’s a Gatland-type player, while I also believe they have to take Morgan, who’s one of the best players in the Wales set-up.

Dan Lydiate
With the loss of experience from the Wales backrow Dan Lydiate may play the senior statesman role (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“Warren seems to like Aaron Wainwright as a six or as cover for Faletau at No. 8, while I expect Dan Lydiate to make the squad because with Tips, Alun Wyn Jones and Cory Hill having withdrawn in recent weeks, Wales will want Dan to provide some leadership and experience.

“The choice is between Macleod, Basham and Christ Tshiunza if they go with a sixth back rower. With no Alun Wyn and Cory Hill, Tshiunza comes into the reckoning a bit more. They didn’t seem so keen on what he offered as a lock in the Six Nations and sent him home, but he can play in different rows of the pack and that can be an advantage for a coach.”

Tipuric will doubtless watch the action from his armchair, with the assumption being that he’s at peace with his decision to call time on his days with Wales.

He’ll doubtless continue to give his all for his home region for a while yet.

“I spoke with him after he announced his Test retirement and he’s still the same – a down-to-earth kid with his feet completely on the ground and still with time for people. When I was teaching, he came into the school after he and the centre Ashley Beck had been capped by Wales. The kids loved it,” said Simon King, head coach of Aberavon when Tipuric played for the club as a teenager ahead of breaking through with the Ospreys.

He has been a Martyn Williams and a Sam Warburton at one and the same time. And all without a whiff of ego.

“He’s a gentleman and a fantastic player.

“It’s certainly not new for him to come up with memorable moments. He scored a try for the Ospreys against Montpellier last season with a kick across field and wonderful support play – but he did something similar for Aberavon more than a decade earlier against Moseley in the B&I Cup.”

The difference was there were only 362 people watching the Wizards game 13 years ago.

But, still, it was rugby and the feeling has long been that Tipuric would be as happy playing in front of one man and his pet poodle as he would in front of 82,000 at Twickenham or 80,000 at Stade de France.

He has been a Martyn Williams and a Sam Warburton at one and the same time.

And all without a whiff of ego.

A tough act to follow, then, and we are dealing in serious understatement there.

Comments

2 Comments
a
asi 367 days ago

Tips will be missed. one of my favorite player for wales… cheers all the way from Fiji..

N
Nick 368 days ago

Nice piece Mark - he will be missed.

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