WORLD CUP DREAM HAS DRIVEN ME ON AF­TER 2015 AGONY - HALFPENNY

Llanelli Star - - RUGBY - MATTHEW SOUTHCOMBE Sports writer [email protected]­line.co.uk

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.”

Land Rover is a proud world­wide part­ner of Rugby World Cup 2019 and is re­cruit­ing mas­cots from the UK through grass­roots ac­tiv­ity. Fol­[email protected]­ugby

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

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