James Lewton: Silent assassin Faletau fires Dragons' belief

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The Independent Online

Should Wales this morning find the highest ground of their rugby history and reach the final of the World Cup, if they continue to threaten brilliantly the game's old balance of power, let no one place too many layers of mystery on a stunning achievement.

If it happens it will, after all, be as unambiguous as the cleanest punch thrown at an under-prepared opponent. It will have the moral authority of an argument shorn of all pretension and self-indulgence.

It will be stripped of the smallest intimation of brainless swagger, and if there is an implied criticism of less successful challengers assembled beyond the north, east and south of the Principality it should probably rest where it may for the time being.

No, it hasn't happened yet and the beauty of the Welsh, their attitude of mind and spirit, is that they have been the first to say so.

We were reminded of this yesterday when they came to the scene of their semi-final with France, the Eden Park fortress so central to the lore of the All Blacks, and continued to look, to say the least, a million dollars.

The young dragons were resplendent once more in the midday sunshine – and this despite the fact they scarcely broke the silence of the great stadium.

They worked with an easy rhythm, and you understood all over again the pleasure the Kiwi coach Warren Gatland takes in the qualities of key players like the 23-year-old captain and flanker Sam Warburton, and his brilliantly mature allies, the crashing centre Jamie Roberts (24) and the emerging full-back Leigh Halfpenny, who went through a 50-50 foot operation shortly before boarding the plane, and is all of 22.

Gatland, once again, looked like a generously proportioned Persian cat when he noted that another session had gone by without a single Welshman dropping a ball.

Yet there is, it has to be allowed, one element of mystery which does lie at the very heart of this extraordinary Welsh campaign. It concerns precisely what is going on in the head of the player who in many ways has made the most remarkable contribution of all. On the field 20-year-old Tangaki Taulupe "Toby" Faletau (below) is one of the most eloquent rugby players alive.

He is the wonder of his team-mates, impervious to hurt, relentless in his urge to take the game to the opposition, to skewer them at the heart of the breakdown. He also raised the Welsh banner with a try that helped push South Africa almost to the point of defeat in the opening game.

Today Faletau takes on one of the icons of world rugby, France's relentless No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, a challenge which, astonishingly when you consider his age and the fact that this will be just his ninth international game, is considered not much more than a routine assignment by Gatland.

Faletau was asked if the idea of confronting such a great man had given him a moment's cause for reflection, perhaps even a flicker of intimidation. It was not that the question was despised, rather it was greeted as merely odd. After a huge pause, Faletau said: "All the players you face at this level are good. No, I don't feel any differently about tomorrow."

If he is a coach's delight, he is a publicist's nightmare. When Wales used the ferociously low temperature (-120C) of the cryotherapy chamber of the Polish Olympic Sports Centre – an ordeal which has contributed to the belief that this is the fittest-ever Welsh team – he was invited to explain how it was. After some consideration, he announced: "It was very cold."

Nor did he have any emotional scenes to report from meeting his parents, who had just flown in. His father, Kuli, just said: "Stay as you are." No doubt Gatland would echo the request. Kuli played for Tonga as a prop in the 1999 World Cup, moving to Wales shortly before the tournament, when Toby was a seven-year-old. The old man played for Ebbw Vale, then Pontypool; the boy won a rugby scholarship to Filton College, Bristol.

Indeed, it is his sheer rugby intelligence that most excites the coach. "He can deal with anything that comes his way," says Gatland. "It is as though he has got his own radar equipment. He sees things happening quicker than anyone else around. I wouldn't worry about sending him in with anyone. Yes, it's a huge game [against France] but we are also talking about a great talent."

His captain Warburton offers an enthusiastic endorsement. "The word I use most for Toby is 'unbelievable'. He starts every game and he wakes up the next day and he is not even aching. He is so professional, playing alongside him is an amazing experience. He is a chilled-out guy who you just want to be around when you go on the field. When I was 20 I was in no shape to play No 8 in a World Cup semi-final. For someone so young he's got the most incredible stuff. "