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How Welsh Rolls Royce Faletau is inspiring next-gen ahead of return

By Simon Thomas
Taulupe Faletau of Wales looks on at full-time following the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between Wales and Fiji at Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux on September 10, 2023 in Bordeaux, France. (Photo by Adam Pretty - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

When you hear a sportsman mentioned in the same breath as Roger Federer and Lionel Messi, you know you are dealing with someone very special.

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That’s certainly the case with Wales legend Taulupe Faletau who will make his long-awaited return to action for Cardiff Rugby in Friday night’s URC clash with Ulster Rugby in Belfast.

The 104-times capped No 8 hasn’t played since breaking his arm in the World Cup game against Georgia in Nantes last October, with a subsequent calf injury extending his lay-off.

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Now, after more than six months on the sidelines, he will make his comeback in the visitors’ starting line-up at the Kingspan Stadium this weekend.

Welcoming the news, Cardiff coach Matt Sherratt said: “It is brilliant to have him back, for Taulupe and for the rest of the group.

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“He’s a Rolls-Royce, isn’t he?

“He is out there running around and he gets the best out of everyone else.

“You can see it when he’s back around, with the likes of Mackenzie Martin, Alex Mann. Who doesn’t want to play with Taulupe Faletau? He’s a brilliant player.

“He doesn’t say a huge amount, he is pretty quiet, but he loves playing rugby. If you speak to him about the next game or playing for Wales, his eyes light up like he’s a first capper.”

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On how the 33-year-old Faletau has fought back from his double injury blow, Sheratt says: “It’s credit to him because it’s obviously been quite a long route back and he has had to show a lot of his character and resilience to get back out there. He is a good professional and a brilliant guy.

“I am sure he has found it hard, but he’s back and firing and ready to go.

“I have had a couple of conversations with him where I have said ‘Are you missing playing?’ and he’s said he’s found himself sat in the house watching rugby.

“He said his wife walked in the other day and said ‘You are desperate to play, aren’t you?’. He replied ‘Well, I must be, because I am watching rugby!’

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“I think he has been desperate to get back. He seems to have kept the joy of playing rugby and I can’t wait to see him play.”

Sherratt provides a telling first-hand insight into what makes three-times British & Irish Lions tourist Faletau so special.

“I think the sign of any good sportsman – you watch the likes of a Roger Federer or a Lionel Messi – they have got time on the ball and Taulupe has got time on the ball,” he says.

“Everything he does looks pretty comfortable. If he’s jumping in the lineout, he looks smooth. If he’s passing, it looks easy. He’s got that rare commodity that I could only ever dream of, where the game kind of goes in slow motion a little bit for him.

“He’s one of the best players to play for Wales, a brilliant player.”

Someone who will be particularly relishing the opportunity to line up alongside Faletau is fellow Cardiff back row Mackenzie Martin.

“He was the player I looked up to most, 100 per cent,” reveals the 20-year-old.

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“He was my idol. When I started watching Wales, he was the only black person I saw playing for them at the time.

“Obviously, as a mixed race person myself, that was a big factor. He basically inspired me and gave me hope.”

As such, there was to be a very special moment for Martin ahead of his URC debut against the DHL Stormers in November.

“Taulupe presented my shirt before the game. That was unreal,” he said.

“He just said ‘Go and enjoy it, play how you play’. That’s how he plays really, with the vibe, so that was the best advice he could give to me.”

Martin has made really rapid strides since then, breaking into the Wales squad and figuring off the bench in three of their Six Nations matches.

Having Faletau on hand back at Cardiff has clearly been a big help along the way.

“I’ve had a good few chats with him and he’s said if I need anything to let him know,” said Martin, who is among the replacements for the Ulster game.

Now the young man will be able to benefit from playing alongside the Welsh Rolls Royce.

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