Long live the King of Tonga

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If you were to go to the Wikipedia page for Tupou College in Tongatapu, Tonga and scroll to the ‘notable alumni’ section, you would find a link to Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, the man who reigned as the King of Tonga across the turn of the century.

It was the 10th September 2006 that his 41 years on the throne came to an end, and in an unusual twist to protocol in Tonga, his successor was named on the terraces of a rugby stadium thousands of miles away.

Weirdly, the new King is not mentioned as a notable alumni from Tupou College, but a certain Taufa’ao Filise did indeed attend the school before heading off to New Zealand’s North Island to hone his rugby skills in preparation for taking over the monarchy.

Bay Of Plenty was his first port of call there, spending five years playing in the New Zealand Provincial Championship, and working his way up to the Waikato Chiefs development squad in the then Super 12 competition.

A season with the Auckland Blues followed in 2005, and he was also called up to the Tonga squad for the first time in this period, as well as representing the combined Pacific Islands team on two tours.

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Fa’ao Filise played at the 2007 and 2011 World Cups

It wasn’t until the 2005/06 season that ‘experienced and proven front row campaigner’ Filise made his way up to the Northern hemisphere, joining Bath on a short-term deal to cover injuries and international call-ups.

From there it was the quick leap over the Severn Bridge to the historic Cardiff Arms Park, signing with Cardiff Blues at the age of 29 for the final few years of his career.

Or so we thought.

Here we are a whopping 12 seasons after Filise originally arrived in the capital, and the tighthead prop is still more than going strong.

Ask any Cardiff Blues supporter on the terraces at CAP who the ‘King of Tonga’ is, and the answer will be ‘Tau’, Fa’ao’ or ‘Filise’ in a heartbeat.

The word ‘legend’ is somewhat overused to describe sportsmen and women these days, but the history of Cardiff RFC and Blues has seen plenty of them. Percy Bush, Gwyn Nicholls, Bleddyn Williams, Dr Jack Matthews, Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Mikey Rayer, Neil Jenkins, Martyn Williams, Xavier Rush, Paul Tito and now, Taufa’ao Filise.

Filise Challenge Cup Final 2018
Fa’ao Filise earned the respect of everyone he played with

He might not be the player with the most plaudits, or the biggest name in the wider rugby world, but he’s right up the top of the list in terms of service given to the jersey, and that is the best way to make it into the legends section at the Arms Park.

Filise, who has packed down on both sides of the scrum during his time at the club, celebrated his 50th Cardiff Blues outing with a try against Bath, before making his 100th appearance against Connacht in September 2010.

150 came up against Leinster in February 2013, before he became the first player to make 200 appearances solely for Cardiff Blues against Glasgow in November 2015.

After running out for the 250th time against Scarlets on New Year’s Eve just gone, it was fitting that his 255th and final Cardiff Blues game would be a start in the European Challenge Cup Final, a competition he has now won twice in the blue jersey, as well as picking up an EDF Energy Cup winner’s medal in 2009.

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Fa’ao lifts the Amlin Cup with Ma’ama Molitika in 2010

Right to the end he was freakishly strong, with a story in magazine ‘Rugby’ recently detailing how he once came back from an injury lay-off with an extra four kilos of muscle, where you would expect players to lose muscle mass in this time. When asked what he was doing, the answer was simply ‘fishing’.

He combined that, especially in his early days, with an uncanny ability to get around the field for a big man, his 30 metre try against Toulouse in 2009 a prime example of that, as he sped under the posts leaving French defenders in his wake.

Obviously that particular trait of his game declined in line with not only his age, but the requirement for props to be bigger and bigger over the years, but he still knew where the try line was, and his score against the Ospreys at Judgement Day last season produced the biggest roar of a successful day at the Millennium Stadium.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his game was his discipline though. In the front row, where the brutish physicality of rugby is so often seen, he picked up just six yellow cards and one sending off in his time with Cardiff Blues, with one sin binning a result of mistaken identity (who is getting Fa’ao mixed up with someone?!), and his red card spawning the #JusticeForFaao movement.

That disciplinary record is no doubt linked to another reason that Filise is so loved amongst the Cardiff Blues faithful, he is one of the nicest blokes you could ever meet.

Charmingly shy, he rarely does interviews or any sort of media work, and isn’t exactly a regular at organised supporter events, but ask him for a picture and he will never refuse a request from one of his subjects.

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Filise with a microphone is not a common sight

It says a lot about who Fa’ao is as a person that he flew home early from Bilbao on the weekend to take his son, who is definitely rugby player size even at 11, to a sports event on Sunday.

Add all of the above together, and it starts to paint a picture why the King of Tonga is so revered in this part of the World. A major part of the furniture at Cardiff Blues for 12 years, life without Fa’ao Filise at the Arms Park will be a weird experience next season.

One thing is for sure though, the man from the Pacific Islands has woven his way into the fabric of this club, and whenever someone writes a history of Cardiff Rugby, Fa’ao Filise’s name will be at the very heart of this period.

There will never be another like him. Taufa’ao Filise, the King of Tonga. 255 and out.

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