I played the British Lions: Rua Tipoki

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    Rua Tipoki has distinct memories of watching the British and Irish Lions play the New Zealand Maori in 1993.

    He was a young boy glued to a television set in Gisborne and witnessed a spectacular collapse by a Maori team apparently in complete command.

    “The Maori were up 20-0 at halftime and lost 24-20. It was unbelievable, just heart-breaking.” Tipoki rues.

    It was the eighth failed attempt by the Maori to topple the Lions. The infamously lopsided rivalry had seen an ill-tempered match in 1959 disrupted by 38 penalties and frequent fighting. In 1977 Lions wing Pat Squires dislocated his shoulder scoring the winning try.

    The Maori provided little indication they would change history in their only lead up match in Suva against Fiji. The Maori won narrowly 29-27. The All Blacks beat the same opposition 91-0. Scott Linklater recalled in the book, Beneath The Maori Moon.

    “The players were basically missiles and the referee was a bit dodgy.”

    Despite an ugly victory Tipoki argues Fiji provided the ideal build up.

    “Winning in the Islands is always tough. Winning like we did strengthened our resolve. The way we won was the opposite of the way we intended to play the Lions. To overcome Fiji we decided to meet fire with fire. Against the Lions we were given a free licence.” Tipoki explains.

    Weighing in at just over 54 stone, the Lions fielded their heaviest ever forward pack for the Hamilton encounter a week before the first All Blacks Test. Muscling up as well as moving the bigger bodies around would be essential.

    It was doubtful captain Jono Gibbs would play. The Waikato flanker was suffering from a reoccurring plantar fascial injury. After an intense treatment programme that included the physiotherapist treating his foot three to four times daily, Gibbs managed to start. For backs coach and former All Black Stu Forster it was a miracle Gibbs played as he too had suffered the same injury and compared it to walking on glass.

    The leadership and toughness of Gibbs was helpful, but even in his absence the Maori’s were one of the strongest teams ever selected with 16 internationals racking up 365 Test caps between them during their respective careers.

    There were 15 All Blacks in the squad with halfback Piri Weepu the most capped with 71 Tests. He made his debut against South Africa later that year. Tighthead prop Deacon Manu played 14 Tests for Fiji and managed 152 first class games in New Zealand.

    all-blacks-haka-rugby-union-championship-new-zealand-2016

    (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

    The non-internationals were Linklater, Neil Brew (122), Craig McGrath (42), Wayne Ormand, Sean Hohneck and Tipoki (159). Between them they all played Super Rugby and a combined tally of 571 first class games. Hohneck at 2:03cm was a giant of a lock.

    “The non-rugby stuff was more important in the build up than the rugby stuff. We had a lot of talent so the game plan would look after itself. The key to success was bringing everybody together and getting them in touch with their Kaumātua and Iwi.” Tipoki stresses.

    “We visited schools, families and functions all over the Bay of Plenty region. We really tried to make deeper connections with our people, really appreciating what we were playing for and where we had come from. I think it galvanised the team in a spiritual way,” he continued.

    Coach Matt TePou in his last game as Maori mentor was essential in this unifying process.

    “Matt was a master of bringing teams together at short notice. He came from a military background so he understood how to organise people.” Tikipo states.
    In a break with tradition All Black Aaron Pene who played against the Lions in 1993 presented the team jerseys instead of a Kaumātua.

    The first-half was a tight and torrid affair. Both sides exchanged two penalty goals each and it was 6-6 at the interval.

    “It was one of those games where we never felt comfortable. We made one mistake in the second-half and Brian O’Driscoll scored. It was a real arm-wrestle.” Tipoki reflects.

    Tipoki was assigned the daunting task of containing O’Driscoll.

    “Marking Brian is a memory I will cherish. Many people were saying he was the best centre in the world at that time and he certainly represented an enormous challenge.” Tipoki asserts.

    Lions prop Andrew Sheridan tried to impose his will. In the 38th minute the Englishman was yellow carded for a punch he threw at second-five Luke McAlister.

    The mercurial Carlos Spencer, shortly leaving for Northampton, was in the reserves. The 35-test All Black was given a special clearance to play by the NZRFU a courtesy not extended towards Errol Brian almost a decade earlier.

    David Hill had been steady at first-five slotting two goals, but an additional spark was required to break the stalemate.

    “The game changed when Carlos came on. He added the flair needed to break the game open. The Lions found him difficult to read, as we did at times.” Tipoki recalls.

    In the 58th minute Spencer created enough midfield uncertainty to allow Leon MacDonald to twist over for the game’s decisive try.

    “We had broken them a couple of times and camped inside their half. When Leon scored we felt a surge of momentum. ” Tikipo enthuses.

    Two penalties and a conversion from McAlister, then a 21-year-old had the Maori’s 19-6 ahead. Interestingly McAlister’s father Charlie had represented the Maori and Luke had spent his primary school years in Lancashire.

    O’Driscoll’s late try pegged it back to 19-13 and restored some hope for the Lions. Tipoki is adamant there was no panic among the Maori in the final few minutes.

    “Jono stole a couple of lineouts which was crucial. The energy of the crowd and the will to win for our people really spurred us on. There was an assured confidence among the boys.”

    The Guardian heaped praise on the Maori suggesting Gibbes, Corey Flynn and Marty Holah were all excellent and might have done more damage had the evening dew not made the ball slippery.

    The verdict of the Lions was scathing.

    “There is no point the Lions whingeing about defeats like this. Far better to accept that they finished a clear second, absorb their lessons and retire quietly to lick their wounds. If they dwell too long on their deficiencies at Waikato Stadium on Saturday, a very bleak tour stretches ahead of them.”

    Interestingly not a single Scot featured either on the field or the bench for the first time since 1959. Captain Paul O’Connell wrongly warned, “We were beaten in a lot of areas. I don’t think that’ll happen again on this tour.” The Lions lost the Test series 3-0.

    TePou was the most successful coach in Maori history winning 35 out of 40 games. He is presently active in Iwi leadership.

    Tipoki finished his long and varied career by playing 159 first class games and scoring 31 tries. Additionally he appeared in ten tournaments for the New Zealand Sevens team. He played Super Rugby for the Blues, Highlanders and Crusaders.

    In 2004 Tipoki was a member of the first Bay of Plenty team to win the Ranfurly Shield. Captained by Wayne Ormand, the Steamers upset Auckland 33-28. Glen Jackson scored in every way amassing 23 points.

    In 2006 he was captain of the first North Harbour side to win the Ranfurly Shield scoring his only try of the season in a 21-17 victory over Canterbury in Christchurch. Tipoki had been a part of three failed challenges in one season.

    Tipoki became good friends with Irishmen Ronan O’Gara and Paul O’Connell, a relationship that landed him a contract with Munster. In 2008 while playing for the Heineken Cup champions against the All Black, Tipoki led a dramatic haka involving Kiwis Doug Howlett, Lifeimi Mafi and Jeremy Manning. Only a last-minute try by Joe Rokocoko saved the All Blacks from a second defeat to Munster.

    British and Irish Lions New Zealand Barbarians Rugby Union 2017 Generic rugby image

    (AAP Image/Ross Setford)

    In 2012 Tipoki returned for a season and helped Ngati Porou East Coast win the Meads Cup. In the final against Wanganui in Ruatoria they were down 24-0 at halftime. Tipoki laughs loan Irishman Johnny Semple was offered a job and a bride for life after the triumph. Rocky the stallion visited the local tavern to drink with the East Coast boys afterwards.

    Today Tipoki is a rugby development officer for Old Boys’ University in Wellington. His feats in rugby are all the more remarkable given a sometimes torrid upbringing. His parents divorced when he was five years old and he survived a gang related drive by shooting. At primary school he was exposed to friends who sold drugs on behalf of their folks. In 2010 Tikipo signed on with the Te Runanga O Ngati Porou programme aimed at providing male role models for boys aged 14-16.

    In 2016, Tipoki’s oldest son Naera made the New Zealand Secondary School team out of Gisborne Boys’ High School.

    A reunion of the 2005 Maori team is planned for the match in Rotorua. Tipoki is uncertain the Maori team is as strong as the 2005 class, but warns “anything can happen with the Maori’s.”

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