Halfpenny on course for Lions arrival

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The Independent Online

The 20-year-old Wales wing Leigh Halfpenny, more important to the British and Irish Lions than many people imagine despite this being his first season at international level, is recovering fast from the thigh injury that prevented him flying to South Africa with the rest of the party and may arrive in the country as early as next week. This would come as considerable relief to the Lions hierarchy, who value Halfpenny's long-range goal-kicking almost as much as his elusive running in broken field.

"Leigh is running hard and is up to 80 per cent," said Tim Atter, one of the physiotherapists at Cardiff Blues, where Halfpenny plays his club rugby. "Over the next two days, we hope to get him back to full pace. He's also done some light kicking. He has been really positive, worked exceptionally hard and is determined to get on the tour."

Halfpenny, the youngest Lion in more than 40 years, should, if all goes well, make his debut against Free State Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday week, by which time his last-minute replacement in the squad, James Hook, will have had his first taste of the red-shirted experience. Hook, a fellow Wales international, will stay on tour as the 37th player, largely to provide goal-kicking cover for the two front-line No 10s, Stephen Jones and Ronan O'Gara.

Back in England, the national manager Martin Johnson yesterday cast some light over the peculiar affair of Danny Cipriani and the Lions call-up that never happened. The Wasps outside-half came under brief consideration when Halfpenny broke down, but the Lions management claimed they received mixed messages over his fitness. Johnson viewed it differently.

"Danny hasn't played since 25 April and is a bit sore," he reported. "He saw our medical guys last Thursday and they were happy with his progress. When the Lions made inquiries, our doctor relayed the conversation he'd had with Danny. It was the Lions' call whether they took him or not. The ball was in their court. We're on a different schedule, and besides, they have their own criteria on how fit they want people to be."

Meanwhile, another pride of Lions – the Golden variety, based in Johannesburg – have asked their coach, Loffie Eloff, to stand down less than a week before facing the British Isles tourists at Ellis Park. Eloff incurred the displeasure of his superiors during a fruitless campaign in the Super 14, the southern hemisphere's elite provincial tournament featuring teams from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The Golden Lions finished third from bottom, with four wins in 13 games.

Hans Coetzee, a former South African academy coach, will replace Eloff on an interim basis, but the favourite for the succession is Jake White, who coached the Springboks to World Cup victory in 2007. White is currently conducting a thorough examination of the Golden Lions' systems and structures, having been called in by the province's chief executive, Manie Reyneke.

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