By Graham Thomas
Taulupe Faletau has been acclaimed as one of the true greats of Welsh rugby by his cousin, England star Billy Vunipola.
Faletau, 32, will win his 100th cap against France in Paris on Saturday and can celebrate in style afterwards with a glass of the expensive Japanese whiskey Vunipola is sending him to mark the occasion.
Saracens and Lions back rower Vunipola, 30, was there at the start of Faletau’s remarkable journey when the pair threw a rugby ball around the pitches of Pontypool and New Inn as kids, alongside Billy’s older brother and fellow England international, Mako, 32.
Billy Vunipola, Sale Sharks v Saracens – Gallagher Premiership Rugby. Pic: Getty Images.
“Toby has grown quite a bit since those days – in all ways,” says Billy, who has 68 England caps.
“We had dreams, but that was just maybe to win one cap in international rugby – never mind 100.
“To get to 100 caps, given where he has come from, his parents coming over to Wales from Tonga and the sacrifices they made to give all of Toby’s brothers and sisters opportunities, is an incredible achievement.
“He’s been through bad periods with injuries, like missing out on the World Cup in 2019, so to reach 100 caps is a testament to his hard work and resilience.
“He’s one of the true greats of Welsh rugby, one of their legends, there’s no doubt about that.”
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Cardiff forward Faletau will expand the exclusive club of Welsh centurions to eight players when he runs out at the Stade de France for Wales’ final match of the Six Nations – a match that is live on S4C.
It has taken him a dozen years to reach three figures and he will be the first No.8 in the group alongside Alun Wyn Jones, Gethin Jenkins, George North, Dan Biggar, Stephen Jones, Gareth Thomas and Martyn Williams.
But Vunipola remembers a time when his young cousin was left out of a South Gloucestershire and Stroud College team, to make way for Darren Barry.
Barry would go on to play for Bristol, Cornish Pirates, Worcester and Newcastle but never got further up the England ladder than U19 level.
“Darren Barry got picked ahead of Toby for a big game against Hartpury College. I remember he walked away on his own and when he came back he had those eyes that told me he’d been crying.
“That’s how much it meant to him. To not play because he wasn’t selected devastated him. It was a real motivating point for him because from then on, he was just so determined and he took that onto the field.”
Vunipola’s family moved to England and the Sarries star – currently out of favour with England – won a scholarship to Harrow School, while Faletau stayed in Pontpool and quickly became a rising star at Newport Gwent Dragons.
Vunipola says: “I went to Harrow and the next thing I knew Toby was playing for Newport Gwent Dragons with this huge Afro!
“I thought, ‘wow!’ and then soon after that he was making his Wales debut against the Barbarians and off to the 2011 World Cup. He had an unbelievable, rapid rise.
“We used to play rugby games on PS2 and then, all of a sudden, he’s playing at a World Cup for Wales.”
The Misunderstood Talents of Faletau: Exploring the Personality Beyond the Pitch
As well as building a decade-long reputation as one of the most athletic, skillful and explosive No.8 forwards in the world, Faletau is renowned among fans and the media as a man of few words in comparison to those mighty deeds.
But his younger cousin insists it is a misconception that Faletau is either quiet or reserved, when he is around family and friends.
“That’s just an impression you get from watching him on TV,” adds Vunipola. “From growing up with him, he was always chatting and that’s how I knew he was so determined to make something huge with his rugby career.
“The biggest compliment I can pay him is to say that’s he’s one of the most determined, resilient and mentally strong players I have come across.
“He’s very driven. He wants to play at the World Cup – his move back to Wales was geared with that aim in mind.
“He missed the last World Cup with a collar bone injury and he’s very motivated to be there at the one in France later this year.”
So, too, is Vunipola who hopes to win back his place in the squad under new England coach Steve Borthwick.
“The biggest thing now for us all is motivation. What I have been through has helped the fires burn that bit brighter. The same goes for my brother. He’s in the squad, but he wants to be starting.
“These things are part of the journey, but it all helps to narrow the focus. If selected, I would love to go to the World Cup along with Toby.”
S4C: 2.00pm Saturday – Clwb Rygbi Rhyngwladol – France v Wales
Live coverage from the Stade de France of France v Wales in the 2023 Six Nations.