WORLD CUP DREAM HAS DRIVEN ME ON AFTER 2015 AGONY - HALFPENNY
LEIGH Halfpenny rips his scrum cap off and slams it into the ground repeatedly.
The full-back is one of the quieter, more unassuming players in the game.
Such an outpouring of emotion is out of character. Something is wrong.
Wales are 10 minutes and 43 seconds away from the conclusion of their final warm-up match ahead of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
They’ve already cruelly lost Rhys Webb to what looks certain to be a World Cup-ending injury. At this point, the result is irrelevant and everyone in the stadium just wants to get through the game with no more injuries.
Pain, though, is etched all over Halfpenny’s face as the physios converge from different directions.
“I remember Italy kicking over the top of our frontline defence,” he vividly remembers.
“I’m going for the ball and I haven’t quite managed to get there on the full.
“It’s bounced and gone to my left, I’ve moved to go after it, planted with my right foot and I just felt my whole knee collapse.
“It wasn’t pleasant at all. It was really painful.
“I had no idea what I’d done but my knee was locked. I couldn’t straighten it.”
Broadcasters cut to images of the coaches’ box, where Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards, Rob Howley and Robin McBryde stare into nothingness.
Then they pan to the bench – despondency reigns.
A horrible atmosphere falls over the stadium.
Nobody knows it for sure but everybody expects Wales to have not only lost Webb but now one of their biggest players in Halfpenny less than a fortnight before the global tournament.
Halfpenny is carted off the field on a buggy, sucking hard on entonox – a pain-relieving mixture of gases.
“I was absolutely devastated,” said Halfpenny.
“I had the scan, drove home and waited for the news.
“The phone call came through that I’d ruptured my ACL.
He added: “It was Prav (Mathema, WRU head of medical), who rang me.
“It wasn’t the news he wanted to be giving.
“He rung me up and was devastated as well.
“I can’t imagine it’s easy to give someone that news.
“Reality set in then that my World Cup was over.”
If you’d asked Wales boss Gatland to name the one person he wouldn’t want to lose in such circumstances, Halfpenny would be pretty high on his list.
Back then, few could say for sure how Dan Biggar was going to handle the pressure of taking over the goalkicking from the man widely regarded as the best in the world at the time.
As it panned out, Halfpenny watched on that autumn as Biggar thrived on the expectation, kicking Wales to victory over England, all but dumping the hosts out of their own World Cup.
Then he was invited, along with Webb, to present the jerseys to the squad ahead of the Fiji game.
The memories still stir emotions in the 30-year-old. The words don’t come easy. He clears his throat: “The squad asked if me and Rhys would present the match jerseys for the Fiji game.
“That was pretty special. It was a nice touch and quite emotional. “I was devastated for Rhys as well.” Having suffered the injury in September, Halfpenny would eventually return for his club, Toulon at the time, in June the following year.
Determined to turn the heartbreak of missing that World Cup into a force for good, it’s been in the back of his mind ever since, pushing him to be
better and make sure he’s around for the upcoming trip to Japan where Wales look to have a real shot at glory.
“During each season you have goals and objectives that you want to achieve for club and country. Lions tours are part of that,” said Halfpenny, a Land Rover ambassador, who surprised one of Wales’ Land Rover World Cup mascots Noah Barton by giving him a lift to school this week.
“But the disappointment of missing out on the 2015 Rugby World Cup has always been in the back of my mind, driving me to keep going and working hard. That’s certainly been a motivation.”
Halfpenny’s form since has fluctuated, but he remains one of the safest pair of hands in the game.
A concussion has blighted his 2018/19 season after he was clattered by Australia’s Samu Kerevi last autumn, though he trained with Wales during the recent Grand Slam campaign.
Halfpenny has also been named in Gatland’s 42-man training squad for the World Cup and remains a favourite to board the plane to the Far East later this year.
But he’s got a job on his hands to get his No. 15 jersey back.
Liam Williams has filled that shirt and enjoyed a stellar season, winning the Grand Slam with Wales and Champions Cup and Premiership with Saracens.
“The strength in depth of the squad is incredible across the field, including the back three,” said Gorseinon product Halfpenny.
“There is competition for places. The boys who have played have been unbelievable.
“To win a Grand Slam is an incredible achievement and the boys worked extremely hard.
“Obviously, you want to be out there but the boys did a fantastic job.
“To be fair, what a season Liam has had. He’s a great guy and I’ve been good mates with him for a long time.
“It’s been brilliant to see him doing so well. I’m just looking forward to getting back in with the boys now and getting some good preparation in.”
Halfpenny has been on the road to Japan for four years, but his preparation for the global showpiece begins in earnest when he clocks in for the first day of camp today.
He’s enjoyed four weeks off after the Scarlets’ Champions Cup play-off defeat to the Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium and he’s been getting to grips with being a dad.
Daughter Lily is now five months old and Halfpenny, along with partner Jess, has recently returned from their first holiday as a family.
“We went to Portugal for 10 days and it was the first holiday we’ve had with just the three of us,” he beamed.
“They are special times. It was nice and chilled.
“We were told to just completely switch off and relax, so it was a good chance to do that.
He added: “We have the odd sleepless night. To be fair to my partner, she’s amazing.
“But I’m loving being a dad, it’s the best feeling in the world.
“She’s really coming on now. She’s starting to smile and make noises.
“On holiday, it was the first time we heard her laugh properly, which was pretty special.
“Everything is for her now and that’s what it’s all about.”
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The pain is written all over Leigh Halfpenny’s face after suffering the knee injury which ended his hopes of appearing at the 2015 Rugby World Cup PICTURE: Huw Evans Agency
Leigh Halfpenny is determined to get back on the international stage with Wales after a season blighted by concussion issues
Leigh Halfpenny speaking to our man Matthew Southcombe
Leigh Halfpenny surprised RWC mascot Noah Barton and sister Elise by picking them up and taking them to school at Llanishen High in Cardiff