Six Nations 2014: Wales v Italy - Leigh Halfpenny feels Wales are better than last year

 

When Cardiff Blues faced Toulon in the Heineken Cup, Jonny Wilkinson spoke in admiration at Leigh Halfpenny’s pre-match attention to detail.

Coming from an obsessive  of the ilk of England’s former No 10, that’s saying something. Sceptics could argue it was part of a charm offensive to lure the Welshman to Toulon, a deal Halfpenny agreed last week to end his spell with Cardiff Blues.

On the opening day of the Six Nations, Halfpenny nicely summarises both the good and bad of the Welsh game. His results on the field have been second to none, the successes coming aplenty in 2013, including a second consecutive Six Nations title, the Lions tour win over Australia and, on a personal level, his rugby Oscar on the eve of the autumn internationals.

But he is also the latest high-profile casualty in the regions, the 25-year-old opting for a French move and an annual salary of nearly £400,000, more than double the sum on the table in Wales.

So how do you follow the season of your career? In the case of Halfpenny, who has a timidity in conversation lacking in his game, you get your head down.

As Wales prepare to open their challenge for a hat-trick of titles against Italy – if successful, it will be the first hat-trick since it became the Six Nations in 2000 – he says: “I feel very privileged to have been part of them [the Wales and Lions teams], to have won the Six Nations for the second time in two years was incredible. To go to Australia with a Lions team, to me, was incredible – but then to win the series, that’s what you dream of as a kid. It was  a year that I will never forget.

“So I have to keep working hard and trying to keep seeing where I can improve. It is about maintaining standards, continuing working hard on the strengths of my game and looking for the little details here and there.”

The last time Wales won a hat-trick of championships – in what was then the Five Nations – T Rex had just replaced Mungo Jerry at the top of the UK singles charts. There is a sense of history within the Wales camp, knowing that they could emulate – and even improve upon – their legendary countrymen of 1971.

“We have the chance to create history, to do something very special,” says Halfpenny, who believes Wales are a better side than the one that trounced England at the Millennium Stadium to win last year’s title. “We came off an autumn series that was better than the year before. And look at the experience of the squad: very young but very experienced.”

For Wales’ full-back, you get the sense he is happy for talk of his future to be over. How agonising the decision was to leave the capital where he  had played all his professional rugby is uncertain, but Wilkinson’s role was clearly pivotal.

Going back to their European encounter, Halfpenny says: “Having spoken to him after the game, it was something that I wanted to do, to see his views and thoughts on Toulon. I am not sure what his future is going to be – whether he stays or not. But it would be incredible to play in the same team as Jonny.”

The idea of the two obsessives training and playing alongside one another is intriguing; as is how Halfpenny and Wales plot their title defence starting today.

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