Rewind five years and as the 2011/12 season draws to a close there are rumours that prop Taufa’ao Filise is on the way out.
Nine appearances and an injury keeping him out since the January of that year, as well as a 35th birthday approaching, meant all the talk was that a retirement was on the way. With Scott Andrews and Benoit Bourrust on the books to cover tighthead there would’ve been little surprise if the Tongan had hung up his boots.
Even at the end of the 2014/15 campaign, where Filise had only made seven starts, there was talk of retirement with a 38th birthday on it’s way. Still the Cardiff Blues legend soldiered on though, to where we are now.
As Fa’ao turns 40 he signs on for a further year at the Arms Park, his 12th season playing for Wales’ Capital Region, and is currently in some of his best form. Six straight starts to finish the recent campaign, and a first try in just over five-and-a-half years, has seen him secure his position as the undisputed hero of Cardiff.
In fact, his 24 appearances throughout 2016/17 was the most he’s made in a single season since 2012/13. A quite remarkable feat considering the physical demands that professional rugby exerts on a modern player’s body, something that will have increased noticeably even throughout Filise’s career.
Ask any member of the Cardiff Blues senior squad who the strongest member of the squad is though, and the answer is guaranteed to be Fa’ao. Physical condition maintained by a work ethic that can only serve as the best possible example for our younger players.
To underline just how long he’s been around there are two quite remarkable statistics. Firstly, when the King of Tonga, as he is affectionately known, was substituted against Gloucester during April’s Challenge Cup quarter-final, his replacement in Kieron Assiratti was just nine years old when Filise joined the Cardiff Blues in 2006.
Secondly, and this is extraordinary, Fa’ao Filise has played in 53.6% of all Cardiff Blues matches since the 2003 regional re-brand. Over half of games have seen his name on the team sheet.
With 241 appearances to his name the tighthead is far and away the most-capped player since 2003, the only member of the 200 club and will very likely break the 250-cap barrier at some point next season, barring any injury disaster. That will be a special occasion.
If there’s one thing a CAP crowd loves it’s a trier, and Filise embodies that, putting his body on the line to scrummage, tackle and carry whenever he is called upon. Just getting on with his job in a quiet, self-deprecating manner that makes you want to say ‘aww’ to a 40 year old, 19st, 6ft+ Tongan rugby player.
With Anton Peikrishvili, Dillon Lewis and Kieron Assiratti there will be plenty of competition for a place in the matchday squad next season, but as the man himself told WalesOnline in his only interview to date, “I know I am the oldest player, but there is always a lot of young players coming up and they make me feel young.”
The day that Filise decides to call time on his rugby career will be one of great sadness, no doubt, and he will leave a very sizeable hole around the club, but there will always be a home from home at CAP for the big man.
A place in Cardiff Rugby history is cemented for Fa’ao Filise, one of the undoubted legends to have graced the Arms Park pitch. All hail the King of Tonga!
You can buy your ‘King of Tonga’ t-shirts here to celebrate the big man, with all proceeds going to the Stay Strong For Ows campaign.