This is our truth, tell us yours
Enjoy the picture. Its not the best quality, but on the day Wales play England in one of the most charged and vibrant sporting fixtures within our United Kingdom, the picture should strike fear into the heart of every UKIPer, every racist, every little Englander whoever fulminated against economic migrants. The picture shows an East Wales under 11 rugby side from a decade and a half ago. By then we were used to black rugby players in Wales; the era when our best black rugby players went north like Billy Boston and Danny Wilson (who had a child called Ryan with a woman named Giggs) was over, and guys like Mark Brown and Nigel Walker were deemed worthy of the red shirt with the German motto.
So the presence of three black lads in the East Wales side wasn’t totally shocking. Not that they were Afro Caribbean lads; nor were they from the melting pot of Cardiff Bay. Those three lads staring out from that photo were the sons of economic migrants from Tonga. Today, those lads will face each other at Twickenham; Maku and Billy Vunipola will take the field for England against Taulupe Faletau for Wales, but there was a time when they were just the new kids in town, trying to get by while their dads made a living as security guards and in other low rent jobs while picking up some extra income as rugby players.
Of course it’s a more complex story than that; one of the reasons why Kuli Faletau, Taulupe’s dad, was invited to Wales was because, as a lay preacher, he was seen as a potential mentor for young players like Siua Taumalolo. Stories are told about the Faletau family home being used as a meeting place for the Tongan playing community, about the closeness of the connections and the way they maintained their Tongan culture while patiently fitting in – young Taulupe called himself Toby because the kids in school couldn’t pronounce his name, just as his brother Siua became Josh. You can barely venture into Torfaen or Blaenau Gwent these days and not encounter someone who’ll tell you a story about the Faletaus, their humility and decency. The story of Taulupe giving his first sponsored car to his dad to drive ‘because his dad had to get to work on time’ has gone from the status of anecdote to parable, to the point of being evidence for beatification. They still had to fit in though, to acquire names the locals could pronounce.
Sport is about migration now. Grannygate and other such attempts to find tenuous ancestral connections are long in the past, and player recruitment is a part of every international coach’s duties. Teams are studded with stars who have travelled the world to become the best they can.
There’s a narrative underneath these stories too, that maybe looks back to the past when Welsh rugby was not always so welcoming a place. Welsh rugby overlooked the Vunipolas and Taulupe Faletau. It was only by chance that the bargain basement Welsh regional side in Newport picked up Taulupe from the English college where he was studying, and his old playmates the Vunipolas drifted away into the English system. If they love the shirts they play in now, if they kiss the badge at the end of a game, it is the loyalty of honest professionals given a chance to flourish in a palce of opportunity.
To live in Wales, to be a Welshman like me, a borderer, is to look at people like Taulupe Faletau and welcome them, to see the way they bless our communities, just as Kuli Faletau, lay preacher, security guard and proud dad, also blesses and changes for the better any community he lives in.