British and Irish Lions 2013: Leigh Halfpenny spooks Wallabies before battle in Brisbane
The first Test takes place on Saturday
Almost a quarter of a century after the “Battle of Ballymore” - the violent Test in this city that sent the 1989 British and Irish Lions surging towards a series victory over Australia - the locals are now talking about a different kind of conflict. “This will be a battle of wills,” predicted the Wallaby coach Robbie Deans as he confirmed his line-up for the resumption of hostilities at the Suncorp Stadium on Saturday.
Rarely can Deans, under pressure from pretty much every section of the Australian union population, have sounded quite so confident ahead of a match of this magnitude. “It will be an epic occasion and I can assure you that we'll hit the ground running,” he promised. “Momentum is a big part of Test rugby and the side generating it can impose their will on the opposition. We plan to generate momentum.”
One tourist in particular is spooking the Wallabies, however: the Lions full-back Leigh Halfpenny, whose goal-kicking performances in recent matches have been nothing short of jaw-dropping. Even James O'Connor, the Australian outside-half who may or may not be saddled with the marksmanship duties on Saturday, described the Welshman as “pretty magical”.
The Lions kicking coach Neil Jenkins - a man who knows what it is to boot the red-shirted collective to victory in the southern hemisphere, having scored the majority of the tourists' point in South Africa in 1997 - paid a generous tribute to the 24-year-old Halfpenny, with whom he first worked when the Swansea-born player was in his teens.
“At first, Leigh was purely a long-range kicker,” Jenkins said. “In the Wales set-up, we had people like Stephen Jones and James Hook taking the shorter stuff. We mentioned to him that if he really wanted to do the job full-time and get the most out of it, he should work on his technique at close range. I can tell you he's worked incredibly hard.
”In that sense, he reminds me of Jonny Wilkinson. I worked alongside Jonny when we were both picked for the last Lions tour in 2001 and I have nothing but respect for the bloke. The work he put in - still puts in - was phenomenal, and Leigh is taking the same approach. It's the only way, in the end. If you want to be the best, you have to be the best on the practice field. Mind you, I've probably put the mockers on Leigh by saying this.“
Sam Warburton, the Lions captain and a colleague of Halfpenny's at Cardiff Blues, was also full of praise for the man who has missed just one of his 23 kicks at goal on this tour. But the flanker has other things on his mind: firstly, his up-coming contest with the rapid Wallaby breakaway Michael Hooper; and secondly, the task of striking the right note with his own team ahead of the biggest game of rugby outside a World Cup final.
”I haven't spoken to any previous Lions captains about what to say,“ the Welshman admitted. ”I'll do it my way, and my way is to simplify everything. It's too late to change now. I'm lucky to have had Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll speaking all week: they've led the Lions before and you can see by their body language that they're desperate to achieve things here.
“We have players in the squad who have won Grand Slams, Six Nations titles, Heineken Cups and Premierships, but no one has ticked the Lions box. One thing that's a certainty is the level of determination to make it happen.”
And what will he do with his first Lions Test shirt? Give it to one of his old clubs, perhaps? “I'm going to be selfish with this one,” he replied. “It's going straight above my fireplace.”
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