Unfinished business

Leigh Halfpenny hopes to make amends for what happened at the 2011 World Cup, writes SIMON THOMAS.

It was Christmas Day in the town of Gorseinon in south Wales. While all the other young lads were unwrapping their presents and trying them out, Leigh Halfpenny was to be found at his local rugby club. There he would be, out on the pitch with his grandfather Malcolm, practising his goal-kicking. Every Christmas Day was the same and the ritual has continued into his playing career.

It’s the kind of dedication to his craft that has seen the Wales and British & Irish Lions fullback become one of the leading players in world rugby and one of its most prolific point machines.

It has culminated in him picking up a string of awards, including Player of the Six Nations and Lions Player of the Series, and saw him finish as runner-up to tennis star Andy Murray after a public vote for the 2013 BBC Sports Personality of the Year – no mean feat for a rugby player.

So what drove him to such heights? What saw him forego his turkey and trimmings to spend every Christmas Day booting a ball? Who was his inspiration? Look no further than English World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson. 

‘I looked up to Jonny as a kid and wanted to be him,’ reveals the 26-year-old. ‘When I played, I always imagined myself playing like him.

‘I read his book and he mentioned that he used to go out on Christmas Day. It sort of gave me an urge to do the same. I thought, “If he’s doing it, I’ve got to do it too.” ‘I thought if I go out on Christmas Day, it sort of gives me an advantage over other kickers who aren’t out and are eating lots of turkey. It seemed to give me a mental edge growing up and I continue to do it now.

‘I would have been about 14 when I started doing it and it’s just something I’ve always loved doing. I would wake up and spend time with my family first and then get the boots out and go down to my local rugby club in Gorseinon for half an hour or an hour. After I’ve done my kicking I know I’ve put the work in and it helps me to relax and enjoy the rest of my day.’

Given his long-standing admiration for Wilkinson, it must have been a surreal experience to step into the great man’s shoes when he joined Toulon from the Cardiff Blues last year. With the English flyhalf retiring, it was Halfpenny the French big spenders turned to as the man to take over the kicking duties.

It was a big challenge, but one Halfpenny was up to, with his unerring accuracy helping them claim a record third successive European Cup triumph, as he piled up 106 points in seven matches, including 14 in the victory over Clermont in the Twickenham final.

Now the focus has switched from domestic glory to attempting to achieve the same on the international stage with Wales at the World Cup.

For Halfpenny, it will be a case of unfinished business and making amends for what happened four years ago. Back in 2011, Wales proved the surprise packages in New Zealand, reaching the semi-finals where they came up against France. They missed out on the final by the narrowest of margins, with Halfpenny’s late long-range penalty dipping just inches under the crossbar.

Wilkinson’s perfectionism has clearly rubbed off on him when you hear how much the miss preyed on his mind.

‘It was a tough one to take,’ he admits. ‘For a couple of months, there wasn’t a day that went by where I didn’t think about it. It kept going through my head. It was bugging me so much.

‘My mother always tells me I am too hard on myself. But that’s just how I am. I want to better myself all the time and be the best because I care a lot about it. It’s something  I take huge pride in and work very hard on.’

Switching from wing to fullback was to bring the very best out in Halfpenny, with his rock-solid reliability under the high ball and in defence, plus his ability to hit the line at pace, making him a natural for the role.

Then there’s his goal-kicking. Initially he was just the long-range specialist, but from early 2012 he became the front-line kicker from all ranges and proved a sensation. His accuracy played a huge part in Wales achieving the Grand Slam that year and adding a further Six Nations title in 2013 when he also proved the key man in the Lions series triumph over the Wallabies.

The bottom line is, this is a man who hardly ever makes a mistake, either in his general play or in front of the sticks, with his performances last season for club and country proving he remains at the very peak of his powers and showing why he will be so important for Wales at the looming World Cup.

– This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine

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