Munster Man

'ROG said in his Cork accent, ‘Ah boy, we’re down south, we’re the rebels boy!’

Rua Tipoki has pride in his Māori blood and his time with Munster.

Murray Kinsella reports from New Zealand

RUA TIPOKI’S SON, Ngarimu, has already made up his mind about what his own son is going to be named in the future.

Born in Cork just a few weeks after his father joined Munster, Ngarimu’s earliest years were spent in the presence of true Munster greats. But Ronan O’Gara made a bigger impression than the rest.

“He’s been cheering for the Lions,” says Tipoki of his nine-year-old, one of his four children. “He cheers for Ireland and he was pretty happy when the All Blacks lost. He was the only one born in Ireland.

Rua Tipoki with Ronan O'Gara Tipoki loved working with ROG. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“He tells us that if he has a son one day he’s going to name him after Ronan, so Ronan will have a little namesake running around over here at some stage!”

It would be fitting, for without O’Gara’s influence Tipoki would never have ended up playing for Munster and helping them to the 2008 Heineken Cup during his two-year stint with the province.

The link first came about in 2005, when Tipoki was part of the Māori All Blacks’ unforgettable and historic win over the Lions in New Zealand.

Tipoki, a proud Māori man, was at the front of the haka that day in Hamilton and he led the side with a ferocious, intelligent and passionate performance opposite the Lions’ captain, Brian O’Driscoll, who he would later face in inter-provincial derbies.

A 19-13 victory over the Lions was one of the great moments in Tipoki’s career and 12 years on, as the Māori take on Warren Gatland’s 2017 vintage in Rotorua today, it remains close to his heart.

“It’s a special memory to have been part of the first Māori team to trip the Lions up, and extra special for me on that day because I got to mark the captain,” says Tipoki. “Drico was playing centre that day so it made it even more special. It was a good battle.

“He had a long career at the top and it was a big challenge. I ended up marking him again a couple of times when he was playing for Leinster when I was with Munster, it was always a big challenge.”

That game was one of the highlights of Tipoki’s career but it also led into another – playing for Munster.

Paul O’Connell started in the second row for the Lions, while Ronan O’Gara was part of Clive Woodward’s squad, and the influential Munster pair very much liked what they saw in Tipoki.

Not being men who beat around the bush, they approached the Kiwi centre at the post-match function and asked him if he would consider signing for Munster.

Leon MacDonald is taken to the ground by Brian O'Driscoll 11/6/2005 Tipoki is tackled off the ball by Gordon D'Arcy in 2005. Michael Bradley Michael Bradley

“They came up to me at the after-match and I said to ROG, ‘Where are you guys actually based? Up north or down south?’

“He said in his Cork accent, ‘Ah boy, we’re down south, we’re the rebels boy!’

“I just thought, “Rebels? That sounds a bit like me, I’m keen!’”

Indeed, there was an immediate sense of kindredness there. A native of Te Puia Springs, Tipoki grew up in Gisborne before playing for Ngati Porou East Coast, Bay of Plenty and then North Harbour after a move to the Auckland area.

“I suppose my background, I came from a provincial region and a small country town and then went to North Harbour, which was like the little brother to the Auckland union and we were always the underdogs who had less resources and things like that.

“The Munster story really captured my imagination and I thought I’d love to be a part of that environment. I had an amazing time there and I’m so grateful for it.”

The fact that it was O’Gara and O’Connell who had approached him about a move – rather than an agent – was important to Tipoki and he felt it was “a cool way to do it.”

He was immediately hooked on the idea, but then the Crusaders came calling at the last minute.

Tipoki had been playing for the Blues in Super Rugby, but then Crusaders head coach Robbie Deans managed to persuade him to make the move to the South Island of New Zealand.

“I had a meeting with Robbie and going into the meeting my wife and I had made up our minds that we were definitely going to go.

Rua Tipoki and Doug Howlet Tipoki played with Howlett at Munster and the Blues. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“But Robbie is such an inspirational and enigmatic personality that I walked in the room thinking I was definitely going to Ireland, but came out thinking I couldn’t go and I had to play for the Crusaders.”

So it was that Munster had to wait until the end of the 2007 Super Rugby season to get their man, but 31-year-old Tipoki is glad he did the season with the Crusaders, learning huge amounts that he feels allowed him to be a greater asset to Munster.

His first season was a major success, as Tipoki settled into a side that was full of Ireland internationals and had won the 2006 Heineken Cup but was still hungry for success.

“Obviously, we didn’t win every time, but every time we took to the field, there was an expectation that we were going to win,” he recalls. “It was such a strong belief in that team. That was a big part of Munster’s success, the belief in themselves.”

And Munster did win a huge amount that season, with the 2008 Heineken Cup a proud success for Tipoki.

He enjoyed finally getting the chance to play with O’Gara and O’Connell in particular, having had to wait those two extra two years.

“I knew they were good players, but I didn’t know that they were great players until you’re playing alongside them.

“Just to see how mentally tough they are and how naturally gifted they are at what they do. They’re probably two of the best players that I’ve played with and I’ve played with some greats.”

One of those greats Tipoki had played with in New Zealand was Doug Howlett, himself turned into a Munster man in that excellent team.

The Kiwi pair had both been Blues in the past and Tipoki enjoyed linking back up with the All Black legend. Meanwhile, his midfield partnership with Lifeimi Mafi was a real fans’ favourite, though he pushes the credit for their impact onto others.

“Playing outside ROG and the forward pack was the key,” says Tipoki. “Having a fly-half like ROG just gave you so much time and space, but also we had Dougie running off us and great outside backs, so the chemistry just bounced off each other.

Rua Tipoki and Leifime Mafi Tipoki and Mafi were excellent in midfield together. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“Everyone was just so hungry and excited to play together during that time. When you get a group of guys like that, it’s just so good to be on the field playing with each other.”

2008 brought another memorable moment involving Tipoki in Munster colours, with the All Blacks’ visit to Thomond Park that November seeing the Kiwi line up alongside Mafi, Howlett and Jeremy Manning for their spine-tingling haka.

While there had been murmurings that Munster had prepared a challenge for the All Blacks that day, it remains one of the most stunning moments on a rugby pitch in Ireland.

“We suggested it one afternoon when we were all together, so it just carried on from there,” explains Tipoki. “We checked with some people back home and the message was that as long as they want you do it and you treat it with respect, it was all good.

“It’s right up there in terms of my experiences with the game of rugby, and I’ve been lucky to have plenty. It was special, my wife and my sons were there to watch it in the crowd, it was pretty special.”

But Tipoki featured less frequently in his second season with Munster, after the departure of Declan Kidney to take on the Ireland job saw the arrival of Tony McGahan.

Tipoki had hamstring issues, and though his departure possibly wasn’t on ideal terms, the former centre has nothing bad to say about Munster.

“Things really changed when Deccie left the helm. I had a really good relationship with Declan and to tell you the truth when he left things sort of changed for me. But I enjoyed working with everyone over there and it was an amazing experience.”

Tipoki returned home to New Zealand in 2009 but he has always kept a close eye on Munster and took pride in watching their performances this season after the loss of his former team-mate, Anthony Foley.

As with everyone else attached to Munster, Tipoki has great memories of a great rugby man.

“Axel was just all class. He’s one of those guys who just had so much charisma and a really astute rugby brain, but not only that.

Ronan O'Gara, Tomas O'Leary and Lifeimi Mafi Good times for Munster at the 2008 homecoming. Cathal Noonan / INPHO Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s different in New Zealand because you don’t get many foreigners coming and playing in the top teams, but over in Munster they’d been used to Kiwis or South Africans coming over and adding their flavour.

“The thing about Axel was that he could appreciate all that, but when you stripped it back he knew what Munster was all about and what would fit and what wouldn’t, and he was pretty staunch to that. That was the quality he had.”

Though his professional career was at an end after leaving Munster, Tipoki linked up with his former province East Coast in the Heartland Championship and in 2012 he captained them to their first-ever Meads Cup, playing alongside Irishman John Semple.

His eldest son, Naera, is now excelling at rugby back in New Zealand. The Gisborne Boys High School back row has played for the Hurricanes U18 side and trained with the senior Hurricanes team.

A chip off the old block, Naera also played for the New Zealand Secondary Schools last year. In a nice connection, the head coach of that side was former Munster centre Jason Holland, who is working wonders with the Hurricanes.

Tipoki himself is now coaching Old Boys University club in Wellington’s Premier Rugby competition and he has been stressing to his players the value of playing rugby abroad.

“There’s some brilliant players I’d love to get over to Limerick or Cork to get them some overseas experience and we’d like to take some over here to get some experience and go back to Ireland and play well back in the province there.

“We’re trying to grow some relationships like that. You just learn so much about the game, about life, about yourself.”

He’s keeping a close eye on the Lions tour and has enjoyed watching the “awesome” CJ Stander and Conor Murray, “one of the best in the world in his position.”

Tipoki is also delighted to see Peter O’Mahony leading the Lions today against the Māori All Blacks, with the back row having been through the nightmare of a year out of the game.

Rua Tipoki celebrates Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s so awesome to see him coming back after facing adversity with injuries,” says Tipoki. “I know his Dad is over here so it’s great seeing his Dad following him, just supporting him through his career.

“I knew him as a young fella coming through the academy, so to see him reach the pinnacle like he has, I just can’t wait to see him lead the team, what an honour.”

Of course, Tipoki has a strong interest in how the Māori All Blacks go in this huge clash at Rotorua international Stadium and he understands better than anyone what the occasion will mean to the Kiwi players.

He explains how Māori All Blacks camps involve far more talking and learning about ancestry than actual rugby, with every player called on to stand up and say where they’re from, linking them to their team-mates.

“It’s something that brings that Māori team together, so the difference is that everyone is related by blood. If you’re Māori, you can trace your ancestry back to certain prominent ancestors and they’re all related, so we have a saying that blood is thicker that water.

“For us, it’s about whakapapa, our genealogy. It dates back to those ancestors and so when we put on the Māori jersey, we’re representing not only those that are with us now, but those who have gone before us. It represents all that history.

“In terms of playing the Lions, it’s just that much more special because the All Blacks is the pinnacle of rugby, but there are so many All Blacks that don’t get to play the Lions, let alone beat them.

“For that Māori team that get to take the field, they’re going to get a special opportunity to achieve something that you only get a crack at once in your career if you’re really lucky.”

Tipoki says that many teams around the world aspire to having the kind of connections and chemistry that the Māori possess, allowing them to push that bit harder for each other in the tough times.

Rua Tipoki, Doug Howlett and Lifeimi Mafi lead the Munster Haka Tipoki, Manning, Howlett and Mafi's famous haka. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

He has felt something close to it in only one other place.

“Having been over to Munster and experiencing the history and tradition that has, that’s something very similar.

“You’re not only playing for your province over there, you’re playing for your local communities and the smaller clubs you come out of in the region. You’ve got all that history and tradition behind you.”

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