In-demand British and Irish Lions star Leigh Halfpenny set to be tempted by lucrative French offers
Cardiff Blues fight for Lions' man of series but will struggle to see off Top 14 clubs
Thursday 11 July 2013
British and Irish Lions hero Leigh Halfpenny could be the latest big name lured to France. No sooner had the victorious Lions returned to a rapturous welcome home than the race to sign British rugby's hottest property began.
France's leading clubs, with the financial clout to out-muscle any British rival, are set to test the precarious economics in Welsh rugby with a move for the man of the series against Australia.
Halfpenny arrived home to jubilant scenes at Heathrow along with the rest of the squad which clinched the Lions' first series win in 16 years.
No doubt many of the players will return to the airport in the coming days for a well-earned holiday, though behind the scenes, clubs, executives and agents are already busying themselves over contracts and fees. Such is the impact of a winning Lions tour.
Top of the list is Halfpenny, the diminutive 24-year-old from Gorseinon, near Swansea, whose herculean performances Down Under, including a record 21-point haul in the decisive third Test in Sydney, have left him standing tall in the rugby world. Coming after he was named Six Nations' player of the tournament, there are few players who will be more sought after in the coming months.
Clermont Auvergne have tracked Halfpenny as successor to Lee Byrne for the past year while Top 14 rivals European champions Toulon and big-spending Racing Métro 92 are also lining up offers.
Paris-based Racing will already boast an impressive trophy cabinet of Lions next season having signed Halfpenny's Cardiff Blues team-mate Jamie Roberts, flanker Dan Lydiate as well as Ireland fly-half Jonathan Sexton, who will become the highest-paid player in France with a two-year contract understood to be worth £1.2m. Such is the concern at Cardiff that chief executive Richard Holland flew to Australia to open talks with Halfpenny, as well as skipper Sam Warburton, who will both be free agents next summer when their contracts expire.
Holland said: "Whether or not Leigh will stay I don't know but he's a Welsh lad and we're hoping he will commit to the Blues.
"We have already had discussions and we will be working hard with Leigh to lock him into the Blues for the foreseeable future.
"We are extremely proud of the achievements of all our Lions. Leigh must be the only candidate for the IRB's World Player of the Year after destroying Australia.
"Now we are going to do everything in our power to secure his services. We're trying to put together, within our means, a package which will enable Leigh to stay at the Arms Park and in Welsh rugby."
At Heathrow, Warburton said he hoped his Cardiff team-mate stayed at the club. "I know the WRU and the regions are working very hard to keep players in Wales so hopefully that's the case with Leigh as he's a top-class player," said the Lions captain. "Leigh Halfpenny's been playing world-class rugby now for two or three years in my opinion.
"It doesn't surprise me that he's having the success he's having now: he's the best professional I know. Time will tell, but his contract's got another year with the Blues and I look forward to playing with him for another 12 months."
He added, reflecting on the series win: "It's a great feeling. This Lions tour has been a long time coming so it is nice to come back with a trophy.
"It has only been done a dozen times in 125 years so all the players know they are part of a very prestigious group and are very proud of that.
"It won't sink in for a long time. It feels quite surreal being part of a Lions touring party because I never thought I would be in this situation four years later. Maybe in a few months – or years – I might watch back a DVD and realise what we achieved."
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