As of Monday, Leigh Halfpenny is officially the world’s greatest rugby player, duly crowned at the sport’s equivalent of the Oscars in Paris. He is also quite possibly the most unassuming.
There is almost that same haunted look in his eyes that became Jonny Wilkinson’s trademark when he was at his obsessive, brilliant best. Halfpenny is a Wilkinson mark II: a quiet figure, a kicking machine, almost a training addict keen to wring out every ounce of talent from his relatively diminutive frame.
The Wales captain, Sam Warburton, summed up nicely how Halfpenny works when he looked back on the second British and Irish Lions Test defeat to Australia, a game the Lions had a chance to win with a kick from halfway. For once Halfpenny fell short.
Warburton recalled: “He would have been gutted for days afterwards. He’s very proud and takes great pride in what he does, especially his kicking. He felt like it was his fault but not at all. Sometimes as captain I’ll help him, put an arm around him. I know him quite well so I know when to approach him and when to leave him alone.”
Halfpenny will once again be Wales’ dependable full-back under the aerial volley that South Africa will rain down on him today: in defence, on the break and, most importantly, with his goal-kicking.
The plaudits that have come the 24-year-old’s way do not sit comfortably on his shoulders and, such is his way, he is keen to pass on the credit for his latest honour to those around him.
“Obviously it was a huge honour,” Halfpenny said. “You look at the previous winners and you realise how special the award is. I’d just like to say a huge thanks to my team-mates, my coaches, the guys I work day in, day out with and have been involved with over the years, but also my friends and family that have supported me along the way. Without them, there’s no way I would have been stood there receiving that award.
“I’m just doing my job for my team. I’m just doing what’s expected of me when I take that field. So I don’t like to be individualised.”
No one expects more of Halfpenny than the player himself, who has changed markedly from the 19-year-old that made his debut against South Africa five years ago, a game that Wales went on to lose 15-20.
He insists he is still the same rugby player from Gorseinon, an enclave just six miles north-west of Swansea city centre, that he ever was.
Despite the Grand Slams, Lions tour victories and playing accolades, Halfpenny insists he has not changed. He still follows the same ethos of what he calls “just keeping my head down”.
But surely his rugby Oscar increases the expectation for him to live up to the mantle of being the world’s best player? “No, not at all,” he insisted. “I still see myself as the same player as I always was. I don’t see myself any different.
“I’m just trying to work hard, looking at areas of my game to improve. You never stop learning and that’s what I’m trying to do, keep learning as a player, and keep working hard.”
It is frightening to think that Halfpenny is still a good few years off his peak. But the selfless player won’t be thinking too selfishly, instead focusing on the next task in hand, helping Wales to a first victory over a southern hemisphere side in five years.
“We really need to put a statement out this autumn and start beating the southern-hemisphere teams,” he said. On an individual level, Halfpenny has done that with his oval-ball Oscar. Wales, on the other hand, have not.
Wales: L Halfpenny; G North, J Davies, S Williams, L Williams; R Priestland, M Phillips; G Jenkins, R Hibbard, A Jones, B Davies, A W Jones, D Lydiate, S Warburton (c), T Faletau. Replacements: K Owens, P James, S Andrews, L Charteris, J Tipuric, L Williams, J Hook, A Beck.