‘The Moorabbin Rugby Union Football Club, the Rams, embodies the soul of men, women and junior rugby in Victoria and what it means to connect grassroots with the elite game.’
This line, embroidered on the Moorabbin Rugby Club’s website, typifies what it means to be a Ram.
There is no better example of living and breathing these values than the Tipene family.
Entrenched in the roots of the club for more than four decades, at least 16 Tipene family members, along with an additional six close family members, have all walked through the doors at Moorabbin.
The family legacy started with Api Tipene in 1980. His son Tane followed in his footsteps in 1993.
This year the club is lucky enough to welcome a third generation of the family, with Mana joining the under 9s this season.
Growing up in Pahiatua, New Zealand, Api started playing rugby at the well-known Maori school, Te Aute College in Hawkes Bay at age five. He played junior rugby up to colts for Mangatainoka Rugby Club before being snapped up by Pahiatua to play First Grade, where his uncle was coaching.
Api, and his wife Donna, made the tough decision to move to Melbourne shortly after.
“I was always into rugby,” Api said.
“When I arrived in Melbourne, I didn’t know anything about the place.”
“At that time, the Kiwi Rugby Club advertised for rugby players in the Saturday Age paper. I wanted to go to that club but found out they were in the city; I didn’t know my way around here at the time.”
“I got a job in Moorabbin while I was living in Clayton. We were having a going away party for my brother-in-law at the time and there was a bit of strife with the neighbours next door. The cops came, but it was all sorted. I didn’t know at the time, but they were all part of Moorabbin Rugby Club.”
“The President of Moorabbin, Jack McDavitt, personally dropped in and saw me a couple of days later. He said, ‘why don’t you play rugby for us? I’ll send someone over to pick you up for training tonight.’”
“That’s how I started at Moorabbin Rugby Club.”
Api started the family’s association at Moorabbin with the first of his many senior premierships, incredibly in his first season, in 1981.
Moving to a foreign country proved to be a new world filled with challenges for Api. But once landing in Melbourne, the Moorabbin Rugby Club filled an enormous void in his life.
“Moorabbin made a huge impact on my life,” Api said.
“Back home, I had a lot of friends and a great social life. When we came to Melbourne, we had no one.”
“When I got to the club, other guys there had made the move to come to Australia as well. In that instance, a lot of us only knew the guys who had just come off the boat. We all bonded, and it gave me something I was looking for. It was a family within the club. To this day, it’s still the same.”
Forty years later, Api has since played in a total of 10 premierships in every grade from Firsts to Masters. His signing with Moorabbin coincided with the club embarking on a run of six straight Dewar Shield titles – proving to be Victoria’s dominant team of the 1980s.
But according to Api, the highlight of his time at Moorabbin is taking the field with three of his brothers, all four of his sons and a long list of cousins and nephews over the years.
“People ask me about the premierships,” he said.
“But for me, it’s been the people I’ve met and played against.”
“When I’m playing with my family, they’re just another member of the team. That’s the way I play.”
“My sons always got to play with me at the start because our teams were always short. Every one of them started playing with me at 16 years of age. I’m glad I’ve been able to play with them. But I’ve never been one to tell them how to play.”
“A lot of my best friends all belong to other clubs. Kiwi, Eltham, Harlequins and Melbourne. They are still my close friends today.”
Still playing at 64 years of age, Api is more passionate than ever to give back to the club that ultimately took him in four decades ago.
“The main reason why I have stuck around through my later age was because we have always needed three teams to be in the First division,” he said.
“The Third Grade has always been short on numbers. I stepped down to the Masters team, but a lot of guys got to an age where they couldn’t play anymore. I didn’t want to change clubs; I always wanted to stay here. So, I went back into the seniors and made up the numbers.”
“I’ve been lucky to never have had bad injuries. But if you want to play seniors, you still need to do the little things. I still go to training, and I train with my sons. It’s the way it is.”
“A big thing for me now is to keep the culture going.”
Driving the ‘Rams’ culture for the future generation is his son, Tane Tipene.
Playing together for the first time in 2001, Tane and his father have been on the same team ever since – a privilege Api holds close to his heart.
“It’s been a big highlight for me, playing with him,” Api said.
“Because I played with a lot of older guys, he has become part of our group growing up. He’s gotten to know his friends’ fathers as well as I have. To this day, any one of them can walk up to Tane and talk to him like they would talk to me.”
“He’s taken all that on board.”
“He tells all the younger boys at Moorabbin to talk to the older players at the club. Everyone is so open; they are always there for you if something is wrong.”
“Tane understands what I’m about, I know a lot of people respect him.”
“I’m sure he will keep the culture going.”
Rugby Union runs through Tane Tipene’s blood.
After starting in under 10s with his brothers and making his way up the senior ranks, Tane has held the position of player/coach of Moorabbin’s Third Grade for as long as he can remember. Although he’s admitted it hasn’t always been the most popular role to fill, he’s always done what was needed for the club.
Born into the club and indoctrinated into the ‘Rams’ culture, Tane is proud to be following in his father’s footsteps.
“I always followed around the old man’s team. As kids, we went around being the ball boy and running water for the seniors. That was always part of my life growing up,” Tane said.
“He’s been my idol growing up. I always watched him and followed how he played. As a son, you want to emulate your old man. You want to be as good as they were.”
“There have been instances where he has played other grades, and I’ve played other grades. But being able to play with my old man for that long has been special.”
The Rams are known for a distinctive brand of rugby - instilling an attractive, attacking style of play alongside an uncompromising defence in its junior ranks all the way up to seniors.
Although Tane will not be lacing up the boots and playing, on top of coaching this season, he will be using the lessons learnt from his mentor’s wealth of experience on the rugby field.
“I just watch dad play,” he said.
“It’s about how you adapt to who you are playing and who you are playing with. You have to evolve with the way you play. People see rugby as one facet like ‘that position does this, they only kick the ball.’ It’s not like that. You need to change the way you play with what you’ve got coming against you. It’s all about adapting to what’s in front of you.”
“That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learnt from him.”
Tane's son Mana has just joined the U9s this season and is loving running around with his new teammates. With generation next on display, Tane is proud to be able to continue his family’s rich history at the Rams.
“I didn’t know if he was going to take to rugby,” Tane said.
“I’m just so happy to see him playing. He could’ve played any sport, I didn’t push him to play rugby. When they’re that young, you just want them to grab onto something that they like.”
“It’s a proud moment when your son wants to play your game on his own will.”
The Moorabbin Rams is often referred to as the United Nations of rugby and proudly boasts over 19 nationalities in its teams today. In its 56-year history, the Rams have become the equal most successful club in the Victorian Rugby Union competition, having won 15 First Grade Premierships alongside Melbourne Rugby Club.
As a life member and stalwart of the club, Api has pioneered and epitomized the successful principles and family values of the Rams. Furthermore, he considers everyone who has been involved at the club during his time at Moorabbin as part of his extended family.
“The club has always been a family club,” Api said.
“The amount of families that have come through the club. It’s always been a big part of the club. We’ve had so many different cultures; Samoans, Fijians, Australians and New Zealanders. We all just got along. It’s been a big part of why I’ve always stayed there. It’s been a big part of my life.”
“We’ve had weddings, my sons’ weddings, after functions, my 40th, 50th, 60ths all there.”
“My family is the second biggest family in the club and all our family functions are held at the club.”
“I’m glad it’s been a big part of my life.”
“It’s a part of our everyday life,” Tane said, echoing his father’s sentiments.
“It’s in your core; it’s who you are. It’s how we grew up and it’s part of our general life. I don’t know how to explain it any other way than that. It’s our life.”
In season 40, Api decided that “it’s time for me to call it a day” and will be hanging up the boots at seasons end.
A niggling achilles injury doubled by an impressive crop of junior talent stepping up the ranks and the largest player base in the Victorian Rugby Union has made the difficult decision an easy one – although the club is quietly confident of seeing him make the occasional cameo appearance in the Masters competition.
Now Api is looking forward to watching on Tane and Mana’s journey from the sidelines and even has his fingers crossed that a granddaughter will also pull on a Ram’s jersey.
One thing is for certain; the Tipene legacy will live on at Harold Caterson Reserve for many more years to come.
“Mana seems to have taken to it like a fish to water,” Api said.
“It’s taken him a little bit of time to find out the rules. I had another grandson who tried it, but didn’t like the competition of it all – so he didn’t last long. We’ll see how Mana goes.”
“I won’t be giving him any tips… I’ll be going to watch him a lot.”
Story sourced from: The Tipene Family – Moorabbin Rams