The Bath, Wales and Lions back-rower on balance, Boks and kebabs

Lions No 8 Taulupe Faletau on playing in the moment

IT’S HARD to articulate, Taulupe Faletau says of the overarching goal in rugby. It’s nothing as self-serious as attaining zen – come on – but you’ll get it.

“There is something I want to achieve,” says the British & Irish Lions back-row of his game. It may stem from having spent his fair share of time on the sidelines. “It is a personal thing. Is it achievable? What I’m trying to say is… It’s a feeling. When I’m in a game, when I’m feeling good, that’s what I want to get to.

“Basically I want it to be there whenever I play. You’ll get it in bits and bobs throughout a game, which is fine, but what I want to get to is being in that place throughout a game.”

If we are honest, the perfect game is unattainable. It’s how you do in the pursuit of it that defines greatness. According to feted back-row buddy Justin Tipuric, Faletau’s best attribute is his dizzying search for improvement (though asked if this extends to life off the park, Faletau laughs of DIY, “Bloody hell, it’s a good job my missus isn’t here or she’d be straight on saying, ‘This guy’s useless around the house!’”).

Lions No 8 Taulupe Faletau

Warming up with Bath (Getty Images)

However, you can understand why in amongst the work you can catch feelings of belonging. And that sensation can be intoxicating.

You don’t always have to be in the exact spot you want either, to find it. Lately Faletau showed his incredible Test pedigree for Wales but at times this season with Bath, he’s shifted from No 8 so that a bang-in-form Zach Mercer can anchor the scrum.

“It’s bit different,” Faletau says of shifts to six or the bench. “Obviously you want to play in the position you always play or that you’re known for. We actually just had this conversation at training – you can’t complain, with Zach’s form. You can’t ask to play there when someone is going so well.

“So I’ve fitted in and it took me a couple of games to slot in there but I feel like me and him, as a combination at six and eight, has gone well. He has been on fire, as everybody can see now.”

Here you come to realise that Faletau likes aiming the spotlight at others he feels are deserving. He doesn’t want a fuss.

Take the example of Gareth Bale, his brother-in-law. These are two of Wales’ premier athletes but the back-rower assumes the footballer gets asked loads of questions, so doesn’t want to hassle him. Then there’s public speaking: he is a leader who can talk his way around the park, but the bells and whistles are a bit much. “Speaking in front of a group of people is probably my worst nightmare,” he says. An unburdened Faletau is the most dangerous version.

Which leads interestingly to talk of balance. They’re looking for it in the back row at Bath, and appear to have found it in Wales. So as everyone plays Fantasy Rugby with their own Lions XVs, will we pay enough heed to the need for balance?

For Faletau, that’s “so important” – players need to complement each other’s skill-sets. “If you have two jacklers or even three, then they’re all trying to do the same thing. Then somebody else is likely not doing something. You can’t all run around as three back-rowers doing the same thing, you’ll get in each other’s way.”

Faletau has played South Africa eight times and only won three. He hasn’t faced them since 2017 but is full of respect for the balance their back row has. He says Duane Vermeulen, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Siya Kolisi all seem to have a chemistry, adding that this means any trio facing them needs to be harmonising with each other.

And while some may not sing about Kolisi’s play, a watchful Faletau adds: “Clearly he’s the captain and has the leadership qualities but as a carrier he can be nightmarish – he’s such a powerful bloke and he’s actually got very good footwork.”

There is something lovably old-fashioned about a thoroughly modern athlete who admits he gets caught up in just playing.

Lions No 8 Taulupe Faletau

Faletau carries into London Irish (Inpho)

The throwback of all throwbacks comes when Faletau talks about cheat meals, though. Harking back to childhood days, he conjures the image of a park bench in Pontypool, with him gleefully nailing kebabs with Billy and Mako Vunipola.

He explains: “When we were kids back in Wales, all the dads used to come around the house to drink kava (a traditional Pacific Island drink). It wasn’t the biggest of houses so there’s not much for us to do but wander outside. We’d end up outside the kebab shop.

“We were just trying to be funny as cars were driving past and after our kebab we’d just wander the streets of Pontypool at night until all the dads finished drinking kava! There was a patch of grass by the house. That’s where we’d play a bit of rugby and annoy the neighbours hitting the cars with the ball. They’d come out and bloody hell, they’d go nuts!”

Here’s to finding your happy place, playing with abandon.

This feature first appeared in the June 2021 issue of Rugby World.

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