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Sport 'It's really surprised me!' The strange Lions tour of Taulupe Faletau nobody really expected

10:59  30 july  2021
10:59  30 july  2021 Source:   walesonline.co.uk

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Had it not been for Conan in its more recent form, such a choice would have surprised some, given Faletau ’s position with Gatland and the Lions . It ’ s certainly difficult for an Irishman to resent his important moments. Injured Conan admits he probably wouldn’t have dreamed of convening the Lions around Read more: Lions are videotaping South African athletes meeting the test judges. Conan didn’t interfere too much with his conversation with the Welsh stalwart, but added that he could rely on the experience Faletau had gained from his two previous trips. “I didn’t talk too much with Toby about

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A 10-year anniversary passed with barely a flicker of recognition last month as Taulupe Faletau rang up a decade in Test rugby.

No one has probably ever bothered to count all those tackles he’s piled up for Wales over the years, but there were 83 without a single miss at the 2011 World Cup, a tally that still stands as a global tournament record.

Undoubtedly, he is one of Wales’ greatest players.

This weekend, he’ll return to the Lions Test 23 for the game with South Africa in Cape Town. If he does not make an impact off the bench in the final 30 minutes it will be a surprise, for he is a big-match player who has a high ceiling to his game. The Springboks know as much and would doubtless have preferred for him to have been left out once again.

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Read more : Faletau named Wales' top Six Nations player

Faletau debuted for Wales against the Barbarians in June 2011. Playing in the same team as the then 20-year-old that day was Aled Brew, then also a team-mate at the Dragons. “Everyone knew he was something special,” says Brew now.

“You could see it in training.

“Even from a young age, there wasn’t another No. 8 in the UK who could do what he could do.

“It hasn’t been a surprise that he’s dominated his position with Wales since.

“He has footwork and skills that buy him time and he could play in the centre if asked.

“At the Dragons we always knew he was going to go far in the game.”

Team-mates follow Faletau through the sheer force of his example, but he is famously quiet off the pitch. “Unwilling to say boo to a goose,” one writer said of him, before adding that when the 90-cap player takes the field, “he might well charge a rhino”.

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Brew says: “When he came through at the Dragons he was even quieter than he is now. You could barely get a word out of him.

“Joe Bearman, the then Dragons’ back rower, took him under his wing and I think that helped a lot.

“But Toby’s a good guy and he played some brilliant rugby for the Dragons.”

George North, Jonathan Davies and Dan Lydiate are other professional-rugby playing survivors from Faletau’s bow on the Test scene all those years ago. One by one, the rest have departed, from Morgan Stoddart after an awful injury soon after to Stephen Jones, Sam Warburton and Mike Phillips.

Faletau ploughs on.

Still only 30, he could play for Wales many more times if he stays fit. Alun Wyn Jones has banked 50-plus caps since he was the age that Faletau is now.

The back rower’s exclusion from the Lions side for the first Test with South Africa came after a fragmented run-in to the series during which he played bits of games here and there, including a stint at openside after Justin Tipuric picked up an injury in the campaign opener against Japan.

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When he appeared to be engaging top gear against South Africa A, with a couple of searing breaks in the wide channels, he was taken off with just 48 minutes on the clock.

Sometimes, the cards fall like that.

Faletau is unlikely have moaned.

He didn’t complain before the Lions tour to New Zealand in 2017 when Zinzan Brooke had a pop at him.

The great All Black said back then: “Someone I have reservations about is Welsh loose-forward Taulupe Faletau.

“It’s not that he isn’t a good player, he just isn’t a key player. He’s one of these guys that is pretty much good at everything, but doesn’t have that mongrel edge.

“Quick lesson for anyone playing the All Blacks - if you don’t have that mongrel edge, you get found out pretty quickly against the best team in the world.”

Contrition wasn’t long in coming after Faletau started the tour in a blaze of form. “It’s time for me to tuck in to a bit of humble pie,” said Brooke, at least acknowledging he’d been off target with his original assessment.

“I’ve pretty openly criticised Taulupe Faletau as not having that bit of mongrel you need to play the All Blacks, but if I had to choose the Test side he’d definitely be in with a good crack.

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“He’s played very well.”

Faletau went on to start all three Tests as the Lions shared the spoils with the then world champions.

How does he measure up to, say, Mervyn Davies, another great Wales No. 8? “I don’t think you can compare across eras,” says Lyn Jones, who coached Faletau at the Dragons.

“Mervyn Davies was a magnificent player who played in Lions sides who won series in New Zealand and South Africa. He was a completely different type of No. 8 from Toby.

“Ryan Jones was another very, very good player in that position.

“Let’s be content to say those two were exceptional players and so is Toby.

“Toby relies on fleet of foot to beat people. He has pace and he is a fine defender. Also, he doesn’t make many mistakes.

“Two of those things, pace and a low error-count, separate truly good players from the rest.”

Jones, one of the Welsh game’s great characters and about as extrovert as it’s possible to be, was the polar opposite to the youngster under his command at Rodney Parade.

But he liked Faletau on and off the pitch.

“He was a nice guy,” says the ex-Neath, Treorchy, Ospreys, Dragons and London Welsh coach, who now heads up Russia’s rugby operation.

“I didn’t need to have a lot to do with him because he knew his brief and looked after himself.

“He had a lot of strengths but also worked to improve those areas where he wasn’t so strong.

“He was quiet and good at what he did.”

Jones didn’t expect to see Faletau outside the Lions Test XV for the series with the Springboks. “It’s really surprised me that he isn’t starting in the Tests,” he says.

“I thought with his qualities he’d be in the side to face South Africa.”

But let’s see how this weekend goes.

Faletau isn’t getting a start — he’s had just two of those on tour — but he has a chance to take the field and make a difference.

That he’s good enough to take his opportunity isn’t in doubt.

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