Taulupe Faletau: Quiet Wales man finds his voice after long lay-off

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Taulupe Faletau talks rugby, family and his brother-in-law Gareth Bale with S4C's Clwb Rygbi

Taulupe Faletau winces a little as he looks at a photograph of Wales' players celebrating their 2012 Six Nations Grand Slam.

It is a typical scene of triumph; squad members drenched in champagne, the trophy thrust into the air by their beaming captain Sam Warburton.

But the number eight who had played such a prominent role in Wales' success is conspicuous by his absence. You need to examine the picture closely to find Faletau, barely visible behind his team-mates.

"It's what I tend to do," the 29-year-old tells S4C's Clwb Rygbi.

"Looking back now, I wish I wasn't at the back because I didn't realise at the time they [Grand Slams] don't come around that often.

"I was talking to Sam about it, four years ago maybe. My first couple of years with Wales, we got to the semis [of the 2011 World Cup], won the Grand Slam, won the [2013] Six Nations.

"I haven't won anything since so I wish I'd made the most of it then or tried to soak up the whole occasion back then, rather than trying to think of it now.

"It sounds stupid now but I didn't realise a Grand Slam was such a big thing at the time. I'm a bit gutted I didn't soak it up more than I did."

Wales celebrate their 2012 Six Nations Grand Slam
Wales celebrate their 2012 Six Nations Grand Slam after beating France in Cardiff

Eight years have passed since he last won a Grand Slam, though it feels like no time since a 20-year-old Faletau was bounding around the pitch on his Test debut, a face of youthful innocence belying a ferocious physicality leaving a trail of destruction in his wake.

Wales did secure another Grand Slam last year, but Faletau missed the entire campaign because of injury.

Twice a British and Irish Lions tourist and renowned as one of the world's most accomplished number eights, you would expect a player of his calibre to be missed in any team.

But Wales coped with his absence, their enviable back-row strength in depth coming to the fore. True to form, Faletau simply faded from view.

Injuries kept him out of international rugby for two years but now the Bath player is back and has played in both of Wales' opening two Six Nations fixtures.

There has been little fanfare, Faletau slotting back into the Welsh pack with understated class.

And while he may have returned quietly, Faletau is looking to make up for lost time after suffering from knee injuries, two broken arms and a broken collarbone since moving to Bath in 2016.

'Family got me through my injuries'

"I can't fault the boys and the club. It's a good place to be. It just hasn't been what I wanted - injuries have had a big impact on that," he says.

"I don't feel like I've been able to show what I can do for the club so I'm looking forward to hopefully doing that."

The silver lining of Faletau's long periods on the sidelines is that he has been able to spend more time with his wife Charlotte and their sons, three-year-old Israel and Ezekiel, who celebrated his first birthday last month.

"Kids make it a lot easier than it would be without them," Faletau says, smiling.

"They help you take your mind off it - they have their own needs. We're there to just give them what they want so I've got to put my difficulties aside.

"If they're happy, I'm happy. I try and make the most of my time with them.

"The eldest is more aware of rugby now. I've spent a lot more time with him with my recent injury and he's been to a lot of Bath games.

"He likes rugby and he likes sport in general but, at one point, he was like 'Dad, do you play rugby?' because I'd been taking him without actually being on there. He said: 'Dad, you don't play rugby!' So I said: 'I will soon, boy!'"

Famous fans

Taulupe Faletau
Taulupe Faletau played in Wales' loss to Ireland last Saturday and in the win over Italy a week earlier

Ezekiel can at least watch his father play for Wales again, and one day he may have a famous family member for company at the Principality Stadium.

Faletau credits his "amazing" wife Charlotte for helping him during his recent injury struggles, adding he "couldn't have asked for a better person to pull me through that time".

And it is through Charlotte that Faletau is connected to arguably the biggest Welsh sport star of them all.

"Charlotte's sister is married to Gareth Bale and that's where the connection is," Faletau explains, before adding with a laugh: "They've done well there, the girls, haven't they?

"I went to watch the Euros in 2016 - that was an amazing experience actually, being a fan and following the football. Well, jumping on the bandwagon really!

"That was amazing. I don't think he's been to a rugby game so it's just been me watching him!"

That could change. Although Bale is often busy playing for Real Madrid, he has taken the time to show his support for Wales' rugby players while watching matches such as their 2015 World Cup win over England.

Perhaps if his schedule allows, the Welsh galactico might be back in Cardiff for this year's Six Nations.

And although a Grand Slam is not possible for Wales this year, there is still a chance Faletau could win his third title.

If he does, this time he will celebrate it properly.

"I'll be there," he grins. "At the front with a champagne bottle!"

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