Taulupe Faletau is a mild-mannered man of very few words. Fortunately, he does not waste many. Looking ahead to Bath’s Challenge Cup semi-final against Stade Français on Sunday and evaluating his season, Faletau gives a bashful grin to accompany a brief yet apt summation: “Stop-start”.
The 26 year-old diplomatically masks the deep frustration that must have consumed him at times during this campaign. Last September, 12 minutes into his Premiership debut for Bath against Northampton, Faletau damaged the medial ligament in his left knee. It would be 10 weeks before he returned to rugby, starting in a scrappy 16-9 win over Bristol.
Such is his importance to Wales that an immediate international recall followed, from the bench against South Africa. A simple but sumptuous slip pass to Justin Tipuric late on, sending the flanker under the posts and completing a 27-13 victory, encapsulated Faletau’s all-round ability.
December brought a phenomenal individual display as Bath beat champions Saracens 14-11 at The Rec. “He was fantastic, wasn’t he?” crowed a beaming Todd Blackadder, the Bath director of rugby. “It was like: ‘Who’s this guy again?’ Toby was on fire. He was our spark and inspiration.”
Continuing the theme of calamity, Faletau’s involvement that game was curtailed due to an accidental scratch on his eyeball. Then, on Christmas Eve, the same knee swelled up during a defeat to Wasps. Despite a quicker recovery, his Six Nations amounted to four replacement appearances.
Thankfully, recent weeks have showcased a fit, firing Faletau.
“With all the injuries, I’ve just been happy to get out on the pitch,” he admits, still smiling. “It’d been going well the last couple of weeks but took a bit of a bump last week.”
Bath’s post-Six Nations form has oscillated sharply, ranging from a 53-10 thrashing at the hands of Saracens via two eye-catching wins over Brive and Leicester Tigers to last weekend’s 25-19 reverse against Worcester. The last of these results, which saw a 10-6 half-time lead surrendered, has all but scuppered their play-off hopes.
Amid collective inconsistency, Faletau has shone. Especially in attack, where Blackadder has begun to embed zonal patterns, the Welshman’s explosive running and cute distribution are coming to the fore. And silverware is on his mind.
“The gameplan that we’ve got here allows me to stay out in those wide channels and get the ball in my hands,” he adds. “That’s what I want to do.
“Todd is pretty hands-on and his attention to detail is something that stands out among all the coaches I’ve worked with. He’s always looking for the smallest things that are going to make a difference.
“For the players here and staff throughout Bath, one of the targets we set ourselves at the beginning of this year was to win the Challenge Cup. We’re still in with a shout, so this weekend we want to deliver.”
As a youngster, Faletau remembers watching Stade totem Sergio Parisse on television. He made mental notes of how a world-leading No 8 operated for club and country. Besides having the time and talent to surpass the great Italian he faces in Paris, Faleatu is pretty sharp on word association.
He describes teaming up with Bath colleagues George Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson as “awesome”. This summer’s British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand, which he has been picked for along with the latter two England regulars, will be “the pinnacle”.
Four years ago, Faletau was one of myriad changes Warren Gatland made for the final Test in Australia. He stepped in for Jamie Heaslip and helped snatch the series emphatically. Life has changed since 2013. Though Faletau considered commuting to Bath from Cardiff, he has moved to Coombe Down with partner Charlotte and baby son Israel. Just do not ask him to rave about his development in the interim.
“I don’t really know,” Faletau laughs. “Obviously off the field, I’ve become a dad. That’s been amazing – the best thing that’s ever happened to me. He’s six months old now, and it’s been great having him here. I’m looking forward to the future with the little guy.
“Rugby-wise, I’m honestly not sure. You’d probably have to ask other players and coaches what they think of the progress I’ve made.”
That is a good idea. Blackadder and Gatland evidently think the world of Faletau.