Written interview - Faao Filise

Object Id: 
Faao Filise interviewed by Craig Muncey 2019
How and when did you get into playing rugby union?
I first started playing rugby in 1996, which was in my senior year in High School. The school I went to (Tupou College) is one of the best rugby schools in Tonga and the talent was crazy (George Smith and Willie Ofahengaue are ex-students) and most of the Tongan professional rugby players across the world went to this school too. Rugby is one of the main sports in Tonga so many kids out there know how to play rugby. Anyway, the coach at the time put me in the team I think mainly because I was a big boy and that started my journey within rugby.
You made your debut for Tonga in 2001 whilst playing your club rugby for Bay of Plenty in New Zealand. Can you describe the feeling of playing for your country for the first time?
It was a feeling like no other. I was so proud to put on the shirt and represent my country, and the idea that I am not playing just for myself but for the whole of Tonga, gave me the drive to be better and to prove to myself, and everyone, that I deserved the shirt I am wearing.
You played for the Waikato Chiefs and the Auckland Blues, also in New Zealand, before joining Bath Rugby in 2005. How did the move to England come about and was it a tough decision to make?
My agent at the time raised the idea with me, but it was only a short term contract for six months, as medical cover. It wasn’t a tough decision at all because at the time I was already looking for an opportunity to move overseas and I felt it was the right time career-wise to look abroad. So when my agent first told me about it I jumped at the opportunity. To me, this was my chance, even though it was only six months, but I thought if I do my best to make my mark here and if it doesn’t work out, I can still go back to New Zealand or look to move to France.
You were one of the rare props who could play both sides of the scrum to a very high standard. How did you learn this skill, and for those of us who have never been in a scrum, what are the main differences in technique and strength between loose-head and tight-head?
When I started playing I was only ever playing at loose-head, I moved to tight-head when I moved to play in New Zealand. I was playing tight-head in New Zealand, but for Tonga I was playing loose-head, as they were blessed with some excellent tight-heads at the time. In New Zealand, the main reason they put me there was down to my strength more so than my technique. In New Zealand, the scrum was then different to in Europe. The ball was put into a scrum and then moved to the back and was out of the scrum quickly. In terms of technique, a tight-head has to be very strong as he is the cornerstone of the scrum. On your ball, you tend to find the opposition's loose-head and hooker attacking the tight-head, so you need to be strong enough to be able to deal with that.
With the opposition attacking that side, with the loose-head and the hooker, you tend to see behind the tight-head the bigger, stronger scrummaging lock forward, as well as the additional weight a blindside flanker can provide to try to counter that push. My technique at tight-head was to get as low as possible and ensure my feet were set below me, so to have a good base to work from. In terms of the two positions, my preference was tight-head as enjoyed the challenge of trying to be strong in the set-piece and play an important role in the team.
The scrum has changed a number of times in terms of the engagement through my career. When I first started whichever scrum won the hit, then you could guarantee that scrum would be dominant, so the scrum now is far fairer with the three triggers for engagement now in place. I was fortunate at Cardiff Blues to have as my coach Dai Young, who was an expert at the set piece. He taught me so much and I am so grateful for that. Each person in the scrum has to work together, it is a group effort and does not matter how strong one individual is, it is an eight-man job. Everyone needs to know in the pack when to attack or to stay square and provide a solid base, to hopefully help your backline to play good attacking rugby.
I remember listening to a podcast where ex-England international David Flatman stated that he and David Barnes were delighted when you left Bath for Cardiff Blues, as they felt they would extend their careers at the club with you leaving! How did the move to Cardiff Blues happen?
I really enjoyed my time in Bath. The boys were amazing and the club went out their way to make myself and my wife comfortable when we arrived, and when my six months were up they were keen to extend my contract to two years.
My agent at the time informed me that Cardiff Blues was also interested in me and a few other clubs too. It was a tough decision because I already had a good relationship with the Bath boys and the club have been nothing but brilliant. I met up with Dai Young and Bob Norster for an introduction; it was more of an informal meeting. I was very interested after the meeting but still haven’t made up my mind. Peter Manning then arranged to come over to Bath and speak to me, just for a casual meeting, with an update on the Cardiff Blues and what’s going on and background on the club etc. Anyway, he arrived and I was late because I was still at training, so he had a chat with my wife over a cuppa. I then arrived from training and I spoke with Peter. When he left my wife informed me that she was keen to move to Cardiff. And I guess the rest is history!
One of the other main reasons I agreed to move to Cardiff is the Tongan Community in Pontypool. Most of the guys have played with or against each other and we know each other from home, so it was a no brainer and I am so glad I made the move.
You played in two World Cups for Tonga in 2007 and 2011. Those games included wins over Samoa, Japan and a great win over France, as well as narrow defeats to England and South Africa. What are your recollections of those tournaments?
It was a thrilling feeling, to be honest. Of course, we were the underdogs and most people had written us off, but we gave England and South Africa a really good game and also beat France, it was really crazy. Tongans at home celebrated dancing in the streets and on top of cars. It was a humble feeling to know that everyone in Tonga is celebrating not because we beat France but they appreciated that we gave it our all and win or lose it doesn’t matter. Mind you Tonga have the most insane fans ever, so you can only imagine if we had won the World Cup!
You played for the Pacific Islands in 2004 and 2006. Was it strange to play in a combined side of South Seas Nations and how were the dynamics of the squad?
No not at all. Because Tonga, Fiji and Samoa always played against each other in the Pacific Rim Tournament, and most of the players from all teams have come up through the system where they played against each other in under 21 or college rugby tournaments, so we pretty much know each other. Some of the players played together in New Zealand, and our culture is the same so it was not difficult at all. We had a really nice time during our Pacific Islands days, so I hope they get to still do it, because the Pacific Islands can be a powerhouse in rugby if given the right resources.
Who is the best prop you played with or against?
Played with, Gethin Jenkins and against, Andrew Sheridan. Both fabulous players.
Who is the best rugby player you have played with or against?
I have been so lucky throughout my career and have played on rugby pitches with so many great players. I really cannot decide on that one, I have been very fortunate.
Who is the best captain you played under?
All the captains I’ve played under were all amazing players and individuals, but to me personally the best captain was Paul Tito. The guy is a born leader and I would not be surprised if he runs to be the next New Zealand's Prime Minister!
What is the best stadium you have played at in your amazing career?
The Principality Stadium without a doubt. The atmosphere is insane and the fans are amazing.
Who is the best coach you have played for?
The best coach to me personally was Dai Young. He was a former prop so he knows his stuff in my old position, and he pushed me hard to be better. Danny Wilson was amazing, but he came in towards the end of my career and for only a short period of time. I appreciate the confidence he had in me and he is a lovely guy too.
You have played in some great games for Cardiff Blues including wins in the Anglo-Welsh Cup and two victories in the European Challenge Cup. Is there one game stand out for you above all the others?
When we won against Toulon in Marseille during the Challenge Cup tournament. That was a great game because everyone knows Toulon is a big club and that their players were all stars and also it’s an away game. So everyone thinks at the time that Toulon had already got the game in the bag, but we proved them wrong. Supporters were amazing and I think Cardiff Blues have the best supporters, the players are very fortunate to have them.
You played for 18 years as a professional rugby player and amassed a huge amount of games including 255 appearances for Cardiff Blues. How did you manage to play so many games in such a tough position as a prop and how is your body now?
I think it’s all down to hard work. There is no magic potion just more and more hard work. Also, have the will to drive and push yourself out of your comfort zone. And it is important to be fit, mentally and physically, to deal with it because it is not pretty at times.
To me personally having a great support system behind you, whether it’s friends or family, is very important. I am very grateful to my family, especially my wife and kids, for standing by me through thick and thin. They are the ones who pick up the pieces and deal with the ugliness behind closed doors that comes with being a professional rugby player, yet still back me 110%.
Being a professional rugby player is very hard on families because you sacrifice a lot. My wife, bless her, was pretty much a single mum most of our married life but that, unfortunately, comes with the territory. When I made a mistake to cause the team to lose or just didn’t play well at all, I am grateful that she was there beside me, and I know that after the game win or lose I can still go home and draw the blinds, come back the next day and start over and try to be better.
I guess I am one of the lucky ones to retire without any major injuries, but I can feel the toll rugby has taken on my body, because the game is getting more physical now. Sometimes my knees played up or my ankles, and I know it won’t go away but it is how it is. I am just grateful that I had an amazing career and met some incredible people who are friends to me now but I am enjoying my retirement and being home with my family.
Out of the players you played with, can you name your greatest XV?
  1. Gethin Jenkins
  2. Matthew Rees /Aleki Lutui
  3. Matt Stevens
  4. Deiniol Jones/Bradley Davies
  5. Paul Tito
  6. Maama Molitika
  7. Martyn Williams/Sam Warburton
  8. Xavier Rush
  9. Mike Phillips
10. Nick Robinson
11. Tom James
12. Jamie Roberts
13. Casey Laulala
14. Alex Cuthbert
15. Ben Blair/Leigh Halfpenny
I would like to take the opportunity to thank all supporters of all the teams I played for throughout my career, it has been a pleasure to play in front of you. Thank you.
Object Status: 
Cardiff Rugby Museum
Reproduced by kind permission of Craig Muncey

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