A pair of small scars across Toby Faletau’s forehead cannot contaminate his charm. Though this 22 year-old’s reputation has rocketed over the past 18 months – and could well catapult into orbit this summer – he remains disarmingly polite, a man of few words. Luckily, a toothy grin does most of the talking for him today.
Despite being a virtual certainty to tour Australia with the British and Irish Lions since a storming end to 2011 – contributing a phenomenal record of 69 unbroken tackles and a couple of tries to Wales’ World Cup semi-final run in New Zealand – Faletau is utterly self-deprecating about his feat.
The recollection of how he heard Andy Irvine’s squad announcement is enough to define such a humble nature.
“Training with the Dragons had just finished and we crowded around one of the lad’s cars listening to it on the radio,” explains the prodigiously talented number eight, still wearing a dumbstruck, disbelieving smile over 24 hours after hearing his name called out as part of the 37-man party that will head Down Under.
“Obviously the back row got called out last and I was so nervous that I nearly walked off on my own before they got there. When I heard my name, I just thought ‘wow’. It was a feeling of pure shock.”
The presence of three more Welsh back-rowers strongly suggests Warren Gatland will look to last year’s Grand Slam side as the bedrock of his bid to break the Lions’ 16-year series famine. Indeed, though he has spent most of the past seven months recovering from a dislocated ankle, Dan Lydiate ousted Six Nations skippers Chris Robshaw and Kelly Brown and will be a prominent part of the trip as line-speed-setter supreme.
Decidedly unsurprised by the inclusion of his “brilliant” Dragons clubmate, Faletau is confident his compatriots will thrive under rugby’s brightest spotlight, buoyed by international allies and simultaneously inspired by illustrious company from three neighbouring nations.
Jamie Heaslip, back to something near his Herculean best during Leinster’s 44-16 battering of Biarritz last weekend, will be especially important, both as a guide but also as an affable rival who will not give up his 2009 Test jersey without a fight.
But true to his family-orientated Tongan roots, Faletau – given names Tangaki Taulupe – had someone else to contact when the good news came through.
“I text Mako [Vunipola] straight away,” explains the 26-cap youngster, positively giggling at the happy absurdity that his cousin is now a fellow Lion. “It’s crazy that we’re both going, really. I never thought it could happen.
“We’re pretty tight – we’ve basically grown up together since my family moved over in 1998. At their house in Pontypool, we used to throw a ball around in the garden. It was always me and my brother Siua against him and his brother [London Wasps tyro] Billy.
“Apart from when Mako came on at the Millennium Stadium last month, that was pretty much the only rugby we have ever played against each other, actually.”
Sensing my wince at the idea of a backyard battle between four imposing boys from the Pacific Islands, Faletau laughs again.
“Don’t worry, it was just a bit of fun,” he reassures me. “Never anything too intense.”
Alongside the obvious running ability of Manu Tuilagi, Faletau and Vunipola will inject some bona fide Polynesian power into the Lions’ loose effort. Given that Gatland’s penchant is for size as much as structure, those qualities hold high stock on Australia’s quicker pitches.
But even amid immense excitement, Faletau knows ignoring the threat of Australia is among the most cardinal sins in sport. A broken hand during Brisbane’s first Test defeat last summer meant he had to fly home and watch jet-lagged as two last-gasp losses compounded Wales’ ignominious record against the Wallabies – now at eight defeats in a row.
“It was painful,” Faletau admits. “Watching the boys go down by those small margins was gutting, even more so when you are not involved and just sitting in front of the television. Each of the last two games could have gone either way and the series just happened to fall to them.
“It felt like a great time to go out there because we had won a Grand Slam and were playing well, but from there we went on a losing streak that’s only recently stopped at the back end of the Six Nations.
“Australia do the basics really well and play until the very last minute, which means we’ve got to be on our mettle. They’re all on fire in the Super 15, as well – the tour is clearly a huge motivation for them and they’ll all be fighting so hard to be part of it.”
Faletau remembers little of the Lions’ last visit to Australia in 2001, only tuning in four years later when Tana Umaga’s All Blacks mauled the red shirts magnificently. However, he should be part of blockbuster back-row tussle this time round that may well feature one familiar throwback.
“The way George Smith has come back from the Brumbies is amazing,” Faletau finishes, shaking his head in awe. “It’s like he’s as good as he ever was.
“It seems like he’s part of everything on the field because of his work-rate and what he does at the breakdown. He’s one of my absolute idols in rugby, so to play against him would be unbelievable.”
Unassuming as ever, Faletau might only be convinced that he belongs in such stellar company when he crosses the white line in a Lions jersey. By then, he might have stopped smiling. But don’t count on it.
By Charlie Morgan
Toby Faletau trains in Under Armour HeatGear Sonic Compression product for optimum performance. For more information visit www.underarmour.com.