Analysis: Faletau sets the Lions standard that CJ Stander has to match

The Welsh number eight was outstanding against the NZ Provincial Barbarians.

THE LIONS’ CHANCES of Test series success against the All Blacks dipped when Billy Vunipola withdrew before the tour, but Warren Gatland still has two fine number eights eager to make up for that loss.

Taulupe Faletau got first crack at the Lions’ number eight shirt on Saturday against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians and while many of his team-mates struggled to impress, the Bath back row was outstanding.

Taulupe Faletau tackled by Jack Stratton Faletau was in fine form in Whangarei. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

CJ Stander looks set to take over at eight against the Blues on Wednesday and he now has the task of matching and bettering the standard set by Faletau.

Having started a Test in 2013 and been a favourite of Gatland’s for some time, Faletau is the favourite to face the All Blacks this summer, but Stander will fight for the number eight jersey every inch of the way.

Defensive leader

With the Lions forced to make 149 tackles on Saturday – seven more than the Barbarians – Faletau was one of their key defensive players.

He was the Lions’ top tackler with 14 and a 100% success rate, but the more impressive aspect was the actual quality of his tackles. Of course, one particular tackle in the first half stood out as a highlight of the entire game.


Faletau’s try-saving tackle on Inga Finau was sensational and illustrates so many of his qualities.

Firstly, there’s the work rate and athleticism to get back and make the tackle after the Barbarians break on loose ball.


As we can see above, Faletau [white] is some distance behind Luteru Laulala [red] as the BaaBaas fullback breaks, while he’s also around four metres back from Finau [yellow], who he ends up tackling.

As play rolls on below, we can see Faletau burning past the retreating Iain Henderson as he refuses to give up on what realistically looks like a lost cause.


But Laulala does his best to butcher the try-scoring opportunity by attempting to beat Lions fullback Stuart Hogg, who does a fine job of stopping him and forcing him to offload to Finau.

As Faletau retreats, he reads in a split second that Laulala is going to offload and he produces another burst of acceleration, fully committing to the tackle in the moment the ball is leaving Laulala’s hands.


With his momentum knocking Finau onto the ground, the tackle is obviously sliding towards the tryline and Faletau again produces another burst of intelligence and energy to rescue the situation.

He refuses to let up and cleverly rolls his left arm up and onto the ball, wrapping it tightly around Finau as the Lions number eight whips the tackle around onto his own back.


Faletau then readjusts his right arm to land on top of the ball and Finau’s ball-carrying hand, with the Welshman instantly clamping his arms together to completely trap the ball up and safely away from the ground.

Even when not making glamorous try-saving tackles like the one above, Faletau was impressively effective in defence.

One of the major issues for the Lions on Saturday was their lack of physical edge in contact, and that was obvious around the fringes of rucks as Gatland’s side gave up cheap metres far too often.

Faletau wasn’t dominant in every tackle he made, but he did show lots of fight and resourcefulness on the gainline.


Above, we see the Barbarians looking to hammer their way over from close range in the first half but Faletau wins ground back for the Lions.

It may be a matter of inches in this case, but in a game where the tourists often lost these contests Faletau’s determination stood out. He gets a little assistance from Sam Warburton in this case, but he is largely dealing with ball carrier James Tucker and the latching Jonah Lowe on his own.

Just a phase later, we see Faletau back up on his feet and forcing a turnover.


At first it looks like a simple error from Barbarians prop Oli Jager, but on second viewing it appears that Faletau deliberately targets the ball with his right hand.


Faletau dips in underneath Jager and flashes his right hand at the ball to force it loose.

Obviously, Jager would have been disappointed with his ball security here but it’s clever play from a clever player in Faletau.

Cheat lines

That intelligence Faletau possesses is clear in his attacking play too, and very often when he is not on the ball himself.

Note Faletau’s starting position at the fringe of a Lions ruck below.


Now watch Faletau’s movement as Greig Laidlaw shifts play to the Lions’ left and Stuart Hogg uses his footwork to beat several Barbarians defenders.


As soon as Laidlaw passes left, Faletau has turned upfield and is looking to run ahead of the ball on a ‘cheat line’ to support any possible Lions progress.


That means that when Hogg uses his brilliant feet to dance through the defence, Faletau is in close support – when the Lions fullback might have become isolated without that pre-emptive run from the number eight.

Faletau is in position to arrive at the breakdown as Hogg is tackled, removing the turnover threat of Lachlan Boshier.


The Lions are able to move the ball away with excellent ruck speed as a result.

This type of running line is a consistent feature of Faletau’s play and there were several similar examples in the clash with the Barbarians on Saturday. The best players are always thinking one step ahead and Faletau is certainly one of them.

Ruck hits

We will come to Faletau’s ability on the ball below, but it’s worth mentioning that he is often a key contributor at ruck time.

We saw one example above as Faletau cleared Boshier away from a potential turnover, but there was another strong example just before Anthony Watson’s crucial second-half try.


We’re seeing familiar traits from Faletau here, as he starts on the inside shoulder of Owen Farrell, offering a passing option there. As the replacement out-half instead picks out a lovely pass to Ross Moriarty, Faletau’s reactions are again impressive.

He accelerates through the defensive line – he’s nearly always moving upfield – and though he can’t get into a position to take a pass or offload from Moriarty, he’s there to hit the breakdown.


Faletau’s timing in clearing away BaaBaas wing Sevu Reece is excellent, as he adjusts his line to come through the gate, dipping low and finding a lever on Reece’s right leg, shunting him clear off the ball.

Again, the Lions can play away instantly with quick ball and Watson scores on the next phase.

It’s worth pointing out that Faletau missed a clearout at one important breakdown in this game, as he failed to remove the turnover threat after Kyle Sinckler’s quick-tap penalty in the second half. Otherwise, the number eight was excellent at ploughing away bodies.

Wide game

With 46 metres gained in 10 carries, Faletau had the highest average gain per carry of any of the Lions’ forwards at 4.6, although that is partly because of where he was carrying the ball.

Playing under Todd Blackadder at Bath, the 26-year-old has been superb in the Kiwi’s 2-4-2 system in the latter part of the season, with his role being to occupy wide channels and do damage with ball in hand there.

Faletau’s mixture of power, skill and good decision-making means he is ideally suited to working out in the 15-metre channels.


We get a prime example of how the Lions can best use Faletau above, as Warburton hits him early wide on the left.

Faletau is one-on-one with a back in BaaBaas scrum-half Jack Stratton – exactly the scenario a team wants when they have a forward holding width.

The Lions number eight accelerates to the outside shoulder of Stratton and transfers the ball into his left hand, freeing his right to fend Stratton.


Faletau hitches through that first tackle attempt and then uses his right hand to attempt to fend Bryn Gatland, but the Barbarians’ out-half dips down onto his right leg and clings on.

In an instant, Faletau has the ball back in two hands looking for the offload.


Tommy Seymour has dropped onto Faletau’s inside shoulder but with Laulala having closed up and occupied that offloading space, the number eight makes a good decision to go to ground.

However, he is always keen to ensure quick ball and he opts to throw an accurate offload up off the ground to the arriving Laidlaw, again ensuring the Lions can instantly run at a disorganised and scrambling defence.

Faletau also has the power and grit to carry in the trenches, and we saw a handful of examples in this game, but the wide channels are where he does his greatest attacking work with ball in hand.


One other element to point out in Faletau’s game is a moment of discipline in the closing moments of the contest, when the Lions were under severe pressure.

If Gatland’s side are going to compete with the All Blacks, it almost goes without saying that they cannot give away cheap penalties. The Lions head coach will have been impressed with this small detail at the death on Saturday.


It may be difficult to pick out Faletau’s discipline in the clip above, so it’s worth going through it step-by-step.

Faletau is part of the Lions’ counter-drive, hammering in from behind the lineout catch as the Barbarians come to ground, looking to drive them towards the touchline.


But Faletau swings all the way around to the back of the Barbarians’ maul and referee Angus Gardner is obviously not happy with him being there.


Gardner shouts “Eight, out, out” and Faletau reacts instantly.

It may be slightly difficult to make out below, but we’ve circled Faletau’s right arm as he attempts to free himself himself from the grasp of BaaBaas prop Marcel Renata, who is looking to trap him Faletau on offside position.


Faletau manages to wrench himself free and begins to retreat back towards the Lions’ side of the maul, but Renata looks to grab him again and the Welshman has to slap the prop’s hands away.


It’s pure determination from Faletau not to give the Barbarians another penalty and a chance to kick up to a five-metre lineout to possibly win the game.

Faletau frees himself from Renata and when he makes it back to the Lions’ side of the maul, he hammers back into the contest.


Just as Faletau re-engages in the maul, Mako Vunipola completes his big play and strips the ball out to secure the game-clinching turnover for the Lions.

This moment is a tiny one in the grand scheme of Faletau’s excellent showing on Saturday, but he is the kind of player who consistently makes a subtle and intelligent impact on games.

Faletau has laid down a marker for the Lions’ number eight shirt and now Stander has a big challenge ahead of him.

There is no doubt the Ireland and Munster man will take it on at full steam.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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