From Tonga to Ebbw Vale and now a century of caps in Paris, it has been quite the journey for Taulupe Faletau.
The 32-year-old made history on Saturday at the Stade de France when he won his 100th cap for Wales, the latest chapter in an international career that began all the way back in 2011.
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When all is said and done, Faletau may be remembered as Wales’ greatest-ever No.8, and he certainly has the resumé to back up that claim: Three British & Irish Lions Tours, three Six Nations titles, a Grand Slam and a World Cup semi-final.
On Saturday, against France, he will become only the eighth man to have won 100 caps for Wales and it is only right to reflect on how incredible an achievement that is.
2011 – Emerging in a new generation
Born in Tonga, Faletau moved to Wales when his father Kuli Faletau joined Ebbw Vale in 1997. Quickly settling into life in the Valleys, Faletau’s talent was obvious, and he was just 18 when he was first called into a Wales squad at the end of 2010.
As Warren Gatland began the transition to a new generation of players the following year, Faletau got his chance in a World Cup warm-up match against England, before being thrown in at the deep end by starting Wales’ opening fixture against world champions South Africa.
He acquitted himself well, scoring a try in the 17-16 defeat, going onto start in every game as Wales reached the semi-finals before eventually finishing fourth.
2012 – The Slam
That World Cup announced Faletau on the global stage, part of an exciting back row alongside new skipper Sam Warburton and relentless blindside Dan Lydiate.
The trio were all in their early 20s when they established themselves at the highest level, with Faletau playing every game of the 2012 Six Nations the following year.
Wales responded to the disappointment of a heart-breaking World Cup exit to France by beating Les Bleus 16-9 to seal the Grand Slam, with Faletau at the heart of everything they did well.
While the likes of Gethin Jenkins, Alun Wyn Jones and Jamie Roberts remained from the side that had won the slam in 2008, Faletau and his back-row colleagues were able to help a smooth transition to more success.
2013 – Lions recognition after more Championship success
A poor end to 2012 left Wales facing questions going into the 2013 Six Nations, but after an opening defeat to Ireland, they responded well to win their next three matches.
That set up a final game against England, who were looking to claim the Grand Slam in Cardiff, and Faletau was part of a storming Welsh effort not only denied them a clean sweep, but powered to a 30-3 success that also allowed Wales to claim the title.
Fresh from appearing in every game, Faletau was selected for his first British & Irish Lions Tour, heading to Australia.
With stiff competition from Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip, Faletau had to bide his time, but was given the nod for the decisive third Test with the series tied at 1-1.
He did not disappoint, helping the Lions to a famous 41-16 victory to clinch the series.
2017 – A starring role in New Zealand
Four years on, Faletau had established himself as one of the world’s best No.8s, and was logically selected for his second Lions Tour.
This time, the Lions faced world champions New Zealand, with Faletau set to square off with All Black skipper Kieran Read, regarded by many as the greatest No.8 of his generation.
In many ways, it was the crowning period of his career, with Faletau playing more minutes than any other player on the Tour and starting all three Tests.
It was his try in the second Test that sparked the series turnaround. Receiving the ball out wide, he had no right to get over, but was able to bump Israel Dagg and Brodie Retallick to dot down as the Lions came from 18-9 down to win 24-21.
He played all 240 minutes of the series as the Lions drew the third Test to come away with a 1-1 result overall in one of the most memorable Tours of recent times.
2021 – Back from the brink
Injuries then slowed Faletau while at the peak of his powers, including missing the whole of 2019 as Wales won a Grand Slam and reached the World Cup semi-finals.
He finally managed to put those arm and collar bone injuries behind him and returned to the team. And in 2021, he was back to his influential best as Wales came within one Brice Dulin try in Paris of yet another Grand Slam. Still, Faletau had a third Six Nations title to add to his collection, and was rewarded with a place on a third Lions Tour to South Africa.
Since then, he has continued to thrive, and this weekend will bring up three figures, underlining just what a remarkable career it has been.