Wales vs Fiji RWC 2015: Unsung Taulupe Faletau the key to victory in a pack still struggling to compete

No 8 proves pivotal in repelling Fijian pack but scrum issues a cause for concern

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The Independent Online

That Wales still remain unbeaten in Pool A lends itself in no small part to Taulupe Faletau.

There were no points and no man-of-the-match award, as you would imagine Wales’ humble No 8 likes it, but he would have been secure in the knowledge that he had once more put his body on the line for his country.

Against England he was immense, playing a pivotal role as the tables were turned in the final half-hour at Twickenham last Saturday.

The victory over Fiji will not be remembered the same. It was scrappy as Wales looked far from a side that will keep Australia’s dangerous runners under wraps at Twickenham a week tomorrow.

Wales’ scrum, whose decimation was credited to Joe Marler in their last match, again looked woeful, leaving Warren Gatland scratching his head.

It could have been infinitely worse had Faletau not been anchoring the pack. As the front row repeatedly crumbled under the immense shove of Manasa Saulo, an accordion effect played out for the two packs. Faletau used his talented footwork to keep the ball under control and ensure Wales on a number of occasions maintained the possession, however tentatively.

It was footwork that would not have gone unnoticed in Madrid, where Gareth Bale was on hand to tweet a message of support beforehand: “Congratulations on the 50th cap mate @taulupe and good luck today!!”

On the surface, Faletau seemed the unlikeliest recipient of that message from the Real Madrid star but his girlfriend’s sister is married to Bale, and the two couples have been prone to go out on double dates. So quiet and unassuming is the Newport Gwent Dragons back-rower that he barely talks about the association. In fact, he barely talks at all.

On the rugby field against Fiji, there was his customary never-say-die attitude, it becoming abundantly clear he is the fittest he has ever been. While others huffed and puffed, Faletau appeared still to have freshness in his legs at the final whistle.

In a squad that has been ripped asunder by injuries, Faletau is a freak in that he is hardly ever injured. He has played in 50 of Wales’ last 58 Test matches and started 49 of them. The reason for two of his absences were down to him being away on British and Irish Lions duty in Australia in 2013.

It was not just in the scrum where he made his mark. Despite the towering presences of Alun Wyn Jones, Bradley Davies and, at a later stage, Luke Charteris, he was a regular lineout jumper and chief spoiler when Fiji had possession at the throw. But much of his work goes unnoticed. He is regularly first into the tackle, wrestling for possession with a back row referred to by Shane Williams as a “band of brothers” making their 27th appearance together as a unit for their country.

Williams pointed to Faletau’s “under-the-radar” work and the fact that he is a workaholic, a sentiment backed by Leigh Halfpenny, who could only watch from the sidelines having been ruled out of the tournament.

Halfpenny said of the player: “He works immensely hard on his game and he’s a quality player. He does a fantastic job for Wales both in defence and attack, and he’s one of the last off the training ground.”

For a player that rarely, if ever, gets the headlines, it was befitting that he at least got his moment in the spotlight, leading out Wales with Dan Lydiate, who was also winning his 50th cap for Wales.

Lydiate remembers first laying eyes on “the Pontypool boy” in training. He said: “I asked if he was any good and they said ‘he’s ok’. The next thing he is carving everyone up. He puts his body on the line and is an animal on the pitch.”

It was the same against Fiji on Thursday.