Gatland banks on Halfpenny's talent

Try-scoring teenager handed toughest of debuts against world champions
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Warren Gatland has chosen to tackle the man who is widely credited as being the best player in a team of world champions with a teenager who has played seven first-class games. Everyone in Wales believes Leigh Halfpenny is good, but exactly how good could just about to be exposed by one Bryan Habana on Saturday.

Anywhere else and the player of the tournament in last year's World Cup would relish a head-to-head battle with a wing with a big reputation, but a CV as slight as his frame. But this is Wales and Habana knows from past experience that size is not everything for those in red shirts. Shane Williams is poised to be named the "World Player of the Year" and by common consent made Habana look decidedly flat-footed in the summer Tests.

Saying that, at 13st Halfpenny is a few pounds heavier than Williams, but at 5ft 10 is the same height as Habana but almost two stones lighter. The tale of the tape merely adds to the trepidation that the great Springbok will employ Halfpenny as a speed-bump. For his part, Gatland is characteristically unconcerned.

"At 19-years-old, our message to Leigh has been to just go out there and enjoy himself," the New Zealander said. "The last thing he needs from us is to start talking too much about Habana. A few months ago he was in the Under-20s looking up to these guys, thinking it might be a number of years before he got there, but now he will be running out with them. The great thing about Leigh is that he's a wing who has been scoring tries. He should go into the game with nothing to fear."

Halfpenny, who will be following in a grand tradition of teenagers playing for Wales including Gareth Edwards, was suitably gobsmacked by his swift elevation. "During the summer I was thinking I would try and get some games for the Blues this season, but it's unreal what's happened," he said. "When I phoned my parents with the news they were in tears."

At 27, Andy Powell is a veteran in comparison but he was also rewarded with a first cap for returning from constructive shoulder surgery with some emphatic performances for the Blues. Gatland had no hesitation in shunting his captain, Ryan Jones, to the blindside to make way for the much-travelled No 8. "A couple of Andy's performances for the Blues have been absolutely world class of late and I don't think enough has been made of them," he said. "If it was Jerry Collins or someone, then everyone would be raving about it."

Elsewhere, Gatland has, as expected, ignored Gavin Henson's recent spell of inactivity and gone with the controversial centre at No 12 while Gareth Cooper wins the nod over the out-of-form Dwayne Peel at scrum-half. On the other side of the pitch they will encounter a South Africa with most of the big names, but with the captain, John Smit, surprisingly playing at tight-head prop and not in his normal position of hooker.

Wales team

(v South Africa, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Saturday, 2.30): L Byrne (Ospreys); L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), G Henson (Ospreys), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Scarlets), G Cooper (Gloucester); G Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), M Rees (Scarlets), A Jones (Ospreys), A-W Jones (Ospreys), I Evans (Ospreys), R Jones (Ospreys, capt), M Williams (Cardiff Blues), A Powell (Cardiff Blues). Replacements: R Hibbard (Ospreys), Duncan Jones (Ospreys), I Gough (Ospreys), Dafydd Jones (Scarlets), D Peel (Sale Sharks), J Hook (Ospreys), T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues).