Lions Origin Story: Justin Tipuric
With his local rugby club the other side of his parents’ fence and his dad a former captain of the first team, Justin Tipuric was only ever going to end up in one sport.
The British & Irish Lions flanker may have tried his hand at cricket, football, tennis and more when he was growing up but rugby was inescapable – you could even say it was in his blood.
His family’s long association with Trebanos Rugby Club started with his grandfather Dragotin, a former Croatian prisoner of war, who joined after finding employment in the local coal mine.
Tipuric’s father Andy later captained Trebanos from 1985-86 before Justin and his two younger brothers maintained the tradition by coming through the youth team.
And on returning to the club in Swansea to celebrate Canterbury renewing their deal as Official Apparel Partner with the Lions, Tipuric revealed it will always have a special place in his heart.
“I was living in Trebanos and living right next to the pitch, where my parents’ house is now, and I used to literally jump over the back garden on be on the pitch,” said the Welsh international and two-time Lion.
“It was pretty simple for me, Trebanos was always the team I was going to play for. All my friends were playing for them and I spent most of my time growing playing at the club.
“My dad was a captain of the first team and always used to say, ‘Don’t be better than me’. He used to play seven as well but he still holds it over me that he was first-team captain.
“This club has been a huge part of my family. It’s been a great club for me and there’s no doubt that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for them.
“I used to play all the sports you could name really as a kid, I was obsessed with sports and I wanted to play cricket, football, rugby, tennis, whatever I could.
“When it comes down to it at 16 you have to make a choice and rugby was always going to be that choice, I probably enjoyed it the most and it was what I’d been brought up with.
“Playing with my friends was the reason I did it. We would play down the park, kicking the ball around and that side of it was the main reason you play the game.
“You enjoy it and every Sunday morning you get out there and look forward to having a game with your friends, it was a special club Trebanos – it’s all about the juniors.
“They want you to progress as much as you can and help you to become as good as you can be. I try and keep in touch as best I can really even though it’s not easy with our job.”
Tipuric is by no means a flash in the pan when it comes to internationals who have graduated from Trebanos, with Bleddyn Bowen, Robert Jones and Arwel Thomas all representing their country.
Rhodri Jones is another international who came off the conveyor belt of talent from the small village club and was one of the coaches Tipuric credits for shaping his early career.
“Probably the first person who got me playing rugby was my friend’s father Justin Jones, who was coaching our under-9s team, he was coaching me for a while and got me into it,” he said.
“Then as I progressed Chris Penhale, who is actually chairman of the club now, he was one of my coaches and I remember him telling me I wasn’t allowed to play outside half.
“I always wanted to play outside half, I knew I wasn’t an outside half deep down but as a kid you try and make a fuss and play wherever you can.
“Growing up I was then lucky that Rhodri Jones was our youth coach and he brought me through the youth level and he was a great coach who progressed me.
“He made me a better player than I am now really and I still keep in contact with him now as he is still around the club and coaches the first team as well now.
“All those coaches have had an impact and even after Trebanos I was lucky to play for Aberavon, they were great for me as well. I have been lucky with the clubs who have looked after me.”
Even when Tipuric began making waves with Ospreys and Wales, he never forgot his roots and returned to Trebanos when he could to coach the juniors during weeknights.
It is no surprise then, as the second Lion to emerge from the club after Robert Jones, that his achievements have been recognised all over the walls of the Trebanos clubhouse.
“They are as good as gold and have a few shirts up on the wall,” Tipuric continued. “It’s nice to come back and realise how much support you have around the club.
“I’m not a big fan of being centre of attention and them doing too much as that time can be better spent elsewhere as I know how busy they are but they are really good like that.”
As Lion No. 786, Tipuric made his debut on the 2013 Tour to Australia against the Barbarians before coming on for his first and only Test cap in the final game against the Wallabies.
He also was also selected for the 2017 Tour to New Zealand, making several more appearances in the famous red jersey despite not being able to crack the Test team.
“When you start playing rugby as a kid, you always want to play for your country and the Lions if you’re lucky enough, to actually realise that was going to happen was pretty special,” he said.
“Luckily I’ve been part of two of the Tours now and from a rugby point of view, it’s a dream come true and it doesn’t really hit you until you get back from the Tours what you’ve been part of.”
And with his blue scrum cap ensuring he represents Trebanos wherever he plays, the romanticism that surrounds the Lions is clearly something Tipuric bought into from the start.
“I remember we were in the Vale camp and Paul O’Connell spoke for the first time,” Tipuric continued. “I was quite fresh to it all and obviously you hear about Paul O’Connell.
“It was the first time I had heard him speak and I was in awe. I was like, ‘The boys are right’, because the leadership he had, the way he spoke was unbelievable.
“I still remember to this day that we were in the huddle at the Vale and he spoke for the first time and everyone just had eyes on him, you could hear a pin drop it was so quiet.
“It’s the little things like playing with world class players like that which makes the Lions so special and you always hear stories of them – to see it with your own eyes is something else.
“You want to feel part of that Lions history, part of it in the right way as well, you don’t want to be disappointing in that jersey, you want to represent it well.”
Canterbury will be offering Lions Origin Clubs – those teams who have produced a player who has gone on to play for the Lions – the opportunity to have their Canterbury kits personalised with the logo of the Lions Origin Club to proudly celebrate the achievement.