The biggest game of Charlie Faumuina's life
It is striking to hear Charlie Faumuina, a 50-Test All Black and World Cup winner, a prop who has faced the British and Irish Lions, claimed the Rugby Championship and competed at the sharp end of Super Rugby, describe the Champions Cup final as the biggest game of his life.
This is how Toulouse has gripped him, how the city and the club and its people have been every bit as captivating as donning the black jersey, perhaps even more so.
Cheslin Kolbe, Toulouse’s irrepressible sprite on the wing, said this week that he is more nervous about Saturday’s final against La Rochelle than he was before filleting England in the World Cup showpiece. There is something about the magnitude of this place and this match that has Galacticos twitching.
“For me, I think it is the biggest game of my life,” Faumuina says. “I can say the same as Chessie – I’ve never felt so nervous before a game – but it’s a good thing, it means that you care about it. It’s more so from the fans, how much it means to them, and to your family. When it all comes together, it’s emotional. It’s another side to this game that we love to play.
“The success we’ve had with this special group, we just want to add to it. It’s more emotional than other games or other teams just because of how much we’ve put into it. Over here, it’s a long season, we’ve been to the Champions Cup semi-finals twice and lost to the teams that ended up winning it. The third time, we get to the final, we don’t want to leave any questions unanswered. That’s our mindset right now.”
Coming from the New Zealand culture club, where he had such brilliant men as Pat Lam and Wayne Smith for coaches, it is telling that Toulouse should pull Faumuina so. The aura of the All Blacks is magnetic, but he feels the same intangible bond at the Ernest-Wallon.
In 2019, two seasons into his French sojourn, he helped them win the Top 14, their first Bouclier de Brennus for seven years. On Saturday, they aim to sate an 11-year European drought, and conquer the continent for an unprecedented fifth time. The history is compelling.
“When we won the Top 14, the boys said, ‘You’re not going to experience anything like this ever again’. We drove the bus into the middle of the city and it was unreal,” says Faumuina.
“You can see how much it means to the people; it’s more than just a game, it’s their life. It lifts people up when they’re down. You can see it two hours before games, people are there going crazy. It’s something you’ll hold forever.
“The Kiwi fans are passionate but they are a lot calmer, they let you do your thing. Over here, they’re in your face, but it’s good, you want it, it’s why you play. You play for these people; Toulouse and this team is part of their lives. It’s awesome playing in front of it. We were leaving the stadium on Thursday to fly to London and a few-hundred people were there to see us off. That gives you that little bit more reason to play.
“The history and culture is all over the place, it’s everywhere at the club. You want to have your name, your team up there with some of the best that Toulouse have ever thrown out. We’ve had a really successful time, and I think we can really add to some of that success.”
In chewing over what is to come, Faumuina looks back too, back to his Samoan family in South Auckland, with is heavy Pacific Islands diaspora, back to the building site where he thought he’d spend most of his working life.
“There seemed to be something to go to every weekend, we always had to go and celebrate someone or something,” he says. “We spent a lot of time with our cousins in bare feet, shorts and singles – nothing fancy in life, just always together.
“I was doing my apprenticeship in building. I didn’t go to a big rugby school; I was just lucky to play at a club where there were a few guys who were already in the system. So, when the academy coaches came to watch them, they saw me. It happened pretty fast, from working 40-50 hours a week to being a professional rugby player.
— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) July 9, 2017
“People say rugby can take you around the world and it’s so real. I’ve been blessed to play nearly 14 years now and I’ve seen things that people from where I come from don’t, they don’t really get these opportunities. Hopefully I’ve got a few more years left in it too.”
What those academy coaches saw in Faumuina was a point of difference, a hulking tight-head who could make great, bullocking line breaks, act as a pivot player, or flip the ball, cat-flap-style, out the back door.
His game is perfect for Toulouse and their swashbuckling, mesmeric blueprint. Antoine Dupont is its pilot and fulcrum, aided and abetted by Romain Ntamack. They are the darlings of French rugby. Julian Marchand is arguably the form hooker in the sport. Joe Tekori, the Arnold brothers, Matthis Lebel, Thomas Ramos and of course, Kolbe, maraud around the paddock wreaking their merry, barnstorming mayhem.
When Toulouse get it right – and they get it right far more often than most – it is sorcery on a rugby field.
“It’s a style of rugby that I didn’t understand when I was back in New Zealand,” he says. “It goes against everything that we play. We play structure, everyone has a job, you do your job within a system.
"It’s something that I kind of had to deal with the whole way through my career"
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 21, 2021
“Over here, we like to play that way as well, but these guys can just… You have to have your Duponts and Cheslins to play this style, where you give them the ball and they make something. They off-load to Julian Marchand or Jerome Kaino and it just keeps going and going and it puts the defence under so much pressure that they close in, we whip it out wide to Cheslin again and he does something magical.
“Sometimes it’s hard to play that style but when we get on top of a team, it’s one of the best styles you can play.”
It has taken Faumuina four seasons to get this close to the Holy Grail, the fifth star on the Toulouse jersey. Only La Rochelle, hot on their heels at the Top 14 summit, are left blocking their path.
This has the makings of a colossal final. La Rochelle are a coming team, a side who have never before gone this deep into Europe but are bristling with weaponry. They have skilled physical monsters in Will Skelton and Uini Atonio, with Levani Botia conjuring Fijian wizardry in the backline and Raymond Rhule, a Springbok contemporary of Kolbe, on the wing, all of it overseen by that canniest of winners, Ronan O’Gara.
"No one is going to come to Strand and scout someone for the Stormers"
– @dill10leyds tells @JLyall93 ??? how he beat the odds to make it as a pro and how he is now looking forward to @staderochelais facing @Cheslin_Kolbe11 in the @ChampionsCup final
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 20, 2021
“It’s going to take everything,” Faumuina says. “We’ve got to be direct, meet their power through Skelton and Uini, meet them and hit them at the gain-line, and we’ve got to move those big boys around.
“We’ve got to get to those dark places and stay there. It’s going to hurt, going to be hard, but we’ve got to show that we want it more. We’ve played them twice and won twice but it’s never been easy, they’ve taken it right down to the wire. I just don’t want it to be the one they do win and it’s the biggest match of our lives.”
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