You will hear it said often that Toby Faletau is a man of few words. Some disagree; they say he is much less garrulous than that. So what? The tale of the Tongan lad turned Wales No 8 is one of towering rugby talent and splendid displacement. He is not being paid to wow the poetry punters at the national Eisteddfod.
"I hardly say anything," Faletau admitted, when asked about his contribution to any team talk before today's meeting with Scotland. And why is that? "I can't think of anything to say," he replied. Those well-considered and self-effacing syllables that do escape the Faletau lips come with a thoroughly Welsh accent. And the 21 years he has spent reaching his first Six Nations' Championship – his tournament debut was in last Sunday's two-point victory in Ireland – began with a grumble by the King of Tonga.
The rugby-loving monarch made a suggestion to Phil Kingsley Jones – travelling coach, man of Gwent and agent to the Tongan-descended All Black Jonah Lomu – that the Pacific Islanders' team needed a leg-up. Jones organised tours by Tonga to South Africa and the UK in 1997. Faletau's father Kuli, a beanpole second row, was signed by Ebbw Vale, where Jones's son Kingsley was the captain, and within a year Kuli and full-back Josh Taumalolo were two Tongans alongside 13 Welshmen in the Vale side who knocked Cardiff, Swansea and Newport out of the cup before losing the final, 19-12, to Llanelli. Talk about a small world. Jones Jnr is now coaching Russia – with Taumalolo as backs coach.
"Kuli didn't bring the family [to live in Wales] straightaway," Jones recalled from Lisbon, where Russia played Portugal yesterday. "It took him a few months to get the money together and to make sure it was the right thing to do. The butchers were giving him cheap meat and the Valleys people took to him – a man with a dry wit, a wicked sense of humour but who only says something when it needs saying."
While the seven-year-old Taulupe, or Toby as he decided to call himself one day at school, was mostly at home with his mum Vika, it was his brother Siua who was getting under everyone's feet at the club. There is another older brother, Steve, and two younger sisters, Sia and Fipe.
But rugby appealed, and Toby gained a scholarship at Bristol's Filton College, studying for a BTEC National Certificate in sport. Being over the border was not out of sight, out of mind. Faletau was soon playing for Cross Keys and the Newport-Gwent Dragons academy. A twist of fate might just have taken him to Harlequins – he had impressed the now Dragons coach Darren Edwards while the latter was working as a talent-spotter for the London club.
Wider attention arrived when Faletau stood out in a Dragons LV Cup match against a stellar Ospreys back row of Jerry Collins, Marty Holah and Ryan Jones. "It was his natural athleticism," said Edwards, "the way he managed to get out of tackles."
Explosive from the base, bright in his distribution, Faletau made his Wales debut last June, against the Barbarians. "It was different, it was hard," he said. "Quicker, more physical. You can't afford to make errors." Then he went one better than his dad by playing in a World Cup – Kuli had been in the squad in 1999 but didn't play; the programmes noted him as a "former coastal officer" with 51 caps.
"We saw a huge development in Toby's defensive game at the World Cup," said Edwards. "His work-rate in defence is outstanding. In attack the Dragons like to see him in the back field, in a running role. Wales are different so I feel there's much more to come of him in attack. The more phases they play, the more you'll see of Toby. But that comes down to their game plan."
Toby is good buddies with Dragons hooker Lloyd Burns, a former bricklayer. Kuli is a security guard in Gwent, at schools and industrial estates, and the family gather at the same spot on the terraces for matches at Rodney Parade. It's where Toby heads first at the final whistle. "Dad always talks to me about rugby stuff, always telling me stuff to work on, little things," he said. "My parents came out to see the France game at the World Cup. I enjoyed everything about it, playing with the best players in the world."
And with the last of his few words, he reminisced over Tonga and looked forward to Scotland. "When I was a kid we spent days on the beach, just playing with friends. I went back after the World Cup for five days, for the first time since 2001, to mum's town, Vaini. It wasn't much changed. Same people, a bit bigger. They're happy for me, they're supportive.
"Scotland are going to be up for it after last week [losing to England]. They should have won it. Or so I heard off other people."
Wales v Scotland is on BBC1 today, kick-off 3pm
- More about:
- P Funk