France vs Wales: Leigh Halfpenny proves to be a breath of French air

 

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The Independent Online

It is one of Toulon’s more unusual tourist attractions: Leigh Halfpenny standing waist deep in the waters of Toulon port with his club rugby jersey on. The locals could be forgiven for thinking the Gallic sea air had got to the Wales and Lions full-back, but it has become a regular pastime on his way home from his daily training routine.

Halfpenny admits it is a unique approach: “I’m five minutes away from the port, so it’s on my way home from training.

“Rather than have an ice bath, I stop off at the port and go in the sea up to my waist with my top on and get the recovery in the legs. It’s not a bad view. It’s nice to do that – I quite enjoy it.

“But there’s a car park right on the beach and you get the locals driving past and thinking ‘what on earth is he doing there?’”

After a shaky start when the club’s maverick owner Mourad Boudjellal threatened to terminate his contract on medical grounds as he struggled to recover from a dislocated shoulder, Halfpenny has taken to French life like a duck to water.

There are the weekly, sometimes biweekly, language classes. Asked about his progress, he says with a smile “pas mal” before admitting, “it’s coming along slowly – it’s more difficult than I thought”.

However, the south coast of France is not so much a world apart from Cardiff as you might imagine. While the language and climate are clearly dissimilar, the parallel is in the fervour of the rugby-loving locals.

“Toulon reminds me of Wales in terms of their passion for rugby,” he said. “The sport in Wales is huge, like it is in Toulon. Both sets of fans are hugely passionate.

“Before the game when you get off the bus you walk through a tunnel of fans into the changing rooms. It’s incredible – I have not seen anything like that at club level before. It reminds me of coming off the bus for Wales outside the Millennium Stadium, with the fans cheering you in. It gives you a huge buzz going into the changing room.”

A return to France on Saturday – with les Tricolores lying in wait in Paris – is not quite a second home fixture for Halfpenny, but there will be familiar foes on the opposite side of the pitch from Toulon’s contingent in the France side.

As a resident Frenchman now, surely there is a different feeling ahead of this particular international? Halfpenny sees it differently: “Not really, I’m just focused on doing my job for Wales and my role and what’s expected of me.”

Of the Toulon team-mates lying in wait, few come bigger than centre Mathieu Bastareaud, who weighs in at nearly 19 stone but is resigned to being an attack threat off the bench after being dropped from the starting line-up. His replacement, Castres’ Rémi Lamerat, stands at just over six feet and, at almost 17 stone, his inclusion ensures that France will lose nothing in the power stakes.

Despite Bastareaud’s surprise omission from the XV, Halfpenny is adamant that he remains a danger man: “For Toulon, he’s a big ball-carrying spectacle for us. That’s what we’ll expect and know is coming this weekend. In defence, we’re going to have to be on the money. We have to make sure we stop him getting over the gain line.”

But that does not mean that Wales will be taking their eye of Lamerat, who was named the “Revelation of the Season” after his exploits for Castres during the Top 14 campaign in 2013-14. That task will rest primarily on the shoulders of centres Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts.

Wales have happy memories of Paris. Two years ago, they arrived on the back of a defeat to Ireland following two very disjointed halves of rugby. They left sparking what would prove a successful charge to the title.

Halfpenny is hopeful of a repeat. However, should Wales prove successful, it is a moot point whether the Toulon locals will be quite as understanding of his bizarre post-training rituals.

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