It’s been a difficult period for New Zealand as they try to process the news that their captain, number 8 and Winner of International Terrifyingly Good Rugby Player award for several years, Kieran Read is injured and will miss the Lions Tests and this is on top of some doubt over Jerome Kaino. While replacements have never been an issue for All Black teams generally – after all, any team that can allow Stephen Donald to win a World Cup must have quite a system in place – there will be some modicum of worry that two of their starting back row are out or shaky.
At this difficult time, step forward Taulupe Faletau of Bath who scored a hat-trick in the West Country team’s demolishing of their local rivals and inexplicable shambles Gloucester. This latest performance merely cemented his excellence in a season that, let’s not forget, he missed a large chunk of due to injury and like a flutter at betfair casino Warren Gatland took a gamble bringing him back in the Six Nations.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the timing of the injury to Read alongside Faletau’s brilliance led All Black legend, Zinzan Brooke, to cast doubt on the Lions eight’s value.
“Someone who I do 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.”
To translate what Zinzan is saying here, “he’s good, but he’s not enough of an arsehole”. Does he have a point?
Zinzan is a great and was a hugely talented player that brought a lot more that simply being a bastard on the field, but ultimately at heart he is an Old School Rugby Man™. These men have many tales of physical hideousness to regale the after dinner circuit with like, “I remember the time Johnno punched me in the cock 12 times in the ruck so I fish-hooked him and used his face like a bowling ball”, or “Fitzy once pulled a bloke’s heart out of his chest and held it in front of the bloke’s face so he could see how black it was before he died. We laughed about that for ages”. In their day, forwards in particular had to be arseholes to get the job done, otherwise you would be trampled by your opponents like a rampaging horde of barbarians.
Rugby today still needs some of this of course, but a team is about balance and Faletau is as far removed from the archetypal nasty bastard as it’s possible to be, but this does not diminish his key role in all of his teams.
Faletau is perhaps a victim of making the game look too easy. He rarely looks out of breath, he never grimaces and he is generally a quiet and serene presence on the field, like he is gently floating in a swimming pool with a mimosa rather than running into other very large men at high speed.
But do not fall into the trap of assuming this reduces his effectiveness. He’s a magnificent athlete who consistently breaks the gainline, which he can do either using his force or his sublime feet; is every present in defence both in the line and in cover; wins his fair share of turnovers; has a magnificent engine and, as he demonstrated at the weekend, he gets over the tryline as well. He has been the first name on the teamsheet for Wales for a number of years for these very reasons.
Some players need to be an arsehole or at least become that character on the field in order to perform; Maro Itoje is increasingly assuming this role for club and country and is thriving on it. Faletau does not, he simply gets on with being the most important player in the fifteen and, perhaps most importantly, it is impossible to intimidate him. Sledge him and he will remain impassive, come at him physically and he will outdo you in most things, give him a sly dig and he will phlegmatically ignore it. All of which will lead to the same outcome: an excellent performance from a supremely talented player and “mongrel edge” has little to do with it.
Zinzan and New Zealand would do well to take that under consideration