James Lawton: Halfpenny's heroics enough to make any grandad proud


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The Independent Online

Most days when the boy came out of Penyrheol Comprehensive his grandfather was waiting. He took the boy to where he could practise goal-kicking, usually at the local club but if that was closed anywhere with more or less vertical rugby posts would do.

The boy went willingly because at a time when some of the great heroes of Wales worried the culture of rugby had gone too willingly into a version of Dylan Thomas's dark night, ambushed by X Factor celebrity, video arcades and the lure of biking round to the girlfriend's house, he shared his grandfather's passion for the game.

Leigh Halfpenny's grandfather Malcolm wasn't a hero of Wales but he had played a few times for Swansea and that was heroic enough for the boy who greeted him so warmly when school was done.

Here on the eve of Wales' World Cup semi-final with France at Eden Park one way to understand how it is that a young team has so brilliantly recreated some of the best days of the nation's celebration of the game is to sit down with the 22-year-old Halfpenny.

If, like all of his team-mates, he refuses to race even a day ahead of his time, there is no law against recalling his past.

He speaks of his boyhood and how it was the foundation for the challenge he faces here tomorrow, when as Wales' newly established full-back he will be required to withstand the aerial bombardment launched by France's scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili.

"For me," says Halfpenny, "being a professional rugby player was always the thing I wanted most. I loved to watch Christian Cullen, the great New Zealand full-back, and then Shane Williams became another hero.

"I never forget what my dad said to me. He said that if you wanted something in life you had to make sacrifices. I said to myself that I always wanted to look back without regrets – if all the sacrifices didn't pay off, I could always say, 'Well, I did my best'."

If you want a motif for the team that former All Black hooker Warren Gatland has fashioned with such nerve and released so confidently into this seventh World Cup, Halfpenny's resolution will do well enough.

His exhilaration is heightened by the fact he came so close to staying at home. "When they told me I was in, I felt so lucky to have a chance of making some impact on the tournament that I wanted to shout out."

When the opportunity came, he took it superbly while replacing the injured James Hook midway through the vital pool game with Samoa. Under the high ball, Halfpenny was brilliantly calm and resourceful. Gatland confidently wrote him into the quarter-final team against Ireland. Again, he was perfectly attuned to the challenge presented by the kicking wiles of the old Irish conspirer of pressure, Ronan O'Gara.

On top of his steadiness. Halfpenny kicked one of those fantasy goals he had worked on under the tutelage of his grandfather – a monster penalty which kept Ireland's revival attempts at a crucial distance.

Twenty-three-year old Sam Warburton's leadership is generally accepted here as phenomenal. Halfpenny, who has played under his captaincy through the various levels of the Welsh national team, reports that it is not as though the skipper has encountered some burning bush.

No, Warburton has not suddenly seen a shining light. He has, everyone who knows him insists, always been the born leader. "Sam," says Halfpenny, "isn't talking all the time. It's more a case of small words, big actions. But then he can make his words count. I remember being with the Under-18 team the night before an international with Scotland. We had a dinner and Sam spoke a few words. Well, I was nearly in tears. Yes, we certainly won the game.

"At the national academy boys are being taught how to be a professional, how to handle yourself when all the pressure builds. Sam has caught all of that and you just have to listen to him and see how he goes about things to understand its value."

Never, Halfpenny suggests, has it run higher than in these last few days when recognition of the Welsh achievement has been mounting quite dramatically.

The New Zealand rugby authorities have been so dazzled, according to some sources, they might even flout their own rules and make an attempt to prise their native son Gatland away from his contract with Wales.

"The trouble with this," says Halfpenny, "is that it can take you away from the fact that there is still work to be done. You have to remember where you are at – and who you are."

It is not the hardest job for Leigh Halfpenny. He remembers easily enough the little guy who ran out of Penyrheol Comprehensive with all that kicking to do and he reflects, reasonably enough, so far, so good – and so few regrets.