James Lawton: Halfpenny's heroics are enough to make every grandad proud
Wales' newly established full-back ready to face the French
Most days when the boy came out of Penyrheol Comprehensive his grandfather was waiting. He took the boy to where he could practise goal-kicking, usually at the local club, but if that was closed anywhere with more or less vertical rugby posts would do.
The boy went willingly because at a time when some of the great heroes of Wales worried the culture of rugby had gone too willingly into a version of Dylan Thomas's dark night, ambushed by X Factor celebrity, video arcades and the lure of biking round to the girlfriend's house, he shared his grandfather's passion for the game.
Leigh Halfpenny's grandfather Malcolm wasn't a hero of Wales but he had played a few times for Swansea and that was heroic enough for the boy who greeted him so warmly when school was done.
Here, on the eve of Wales' World Cup semi-final with France at Eden Park, one way to understand how it is that a young team has so brilliantly recreated some of the best days of the nation's celebration of the game is to sit down with the 22-year-old Halfpenny.
If, like all of his team-mates, he refuses to race even a day ahead of his time, there is no law against recalling his past.
He speaks of his boyhood and how it was the foundation for the challenge he faces tomorrow, when as Wales' newly established full-back he will be required to withstand the aerial bombardment launched by France's scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili.
"For me," says Halfpenny, "being a professional rugby player was always the thing I wanted most. I loved to watch Christian Cullen, the great New Zealand full-back, and then Shane Williams became another hero.
"I never forget what my dad said to me. He said that if you wanted something in life you had to make sacrifices. I said to myself that I always wanted to look back without regrets – if all the sacrifices didn't pay off, I could always say, 'Well, I did my best'."
If you want a motif for the team that former All Black hooker Warren Gatland has fashioned with such nerve and released so confidently into this seventh World Cup, Halfpenny's resolution will do well enough.
When you go among the players, their determination, easily expressed and without creating any sense that it has come from hymn sheets spilling off the hotel copy machine, is shared almost eerily. Halfpenny – whose nickname is Full Shilling – pays tribute to the leadership of 23-year-old Sam Warburton but he is plainly not the type who needs to be led by the nose.
"I always had my dreams when my grandfather took me kicking," he says, "and they were always big moments while playing for Wales. But then you become a professional and you know the best lesson is that the job is really never done. It's lovely to call home and hear that the country is going mad and no doubt if I hadn't made the trip – as I so nearly didn't because of injury – I'd have been at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday with all the other thousands of Welshmen and women watching on the big screen. But it's different here, of course. Sam never stops saying that we can have our big celebration when the job is done. Meanwhile, we don't get carried away."
His exhilaration is heightened by the fact he came so close to staying at home. "When they told me I was in, I felt so lucky to have a chance of making some impact on the tournament that I wanted to shout out."
When the opportunity came, he took it superbly while replacing the injured James Hook midway through the vital pool game with Samoa. Under the high ball, Halfpenny was brilliantly calm and resourceful. Gatland wrote him into the quarter-final team against Ireland. Again, he was perfectly attuned to the challenge presented by the kicking of the old Irish conspirer of pressure, Ronan O'Gara.
On top of his steadiness, Halfpenny kicked one of those fantasy goals he had worked on under the tutelage of his grandfather – a monster penalty which kept Ireland's revival attempts at a crucial distance.
He talks now with the kind of easy assurance which explains the continued buoyancy of Gatland despite the loss of his precocious fly-half Rhys Priestland through injury. Gatland said: "I am very lucky to have so many players available to me who are both so young and strong and mature. Losing Priestland is a blow, then you look at the quality of James Hook."
Warburton's leadership is generally accepted here as phenomenal. Halfpenny, who has played under his captaincy through the various levels of the Welsh national team, reports that it is not as though the skipper has encountered some burning bush.
There has been no surge of responsibility to suddenly mock the miserable distractions the England players heaped on themselves before arriving home in Heathrow, beaten but apparently still largely unaware of the betrayals they had inflicted on both themselves and English rugby.
No, Warburton has not suddenly seen a shining light. He has, everyone who knows him insists, always been the born leader. "Sam," says Halfpenny, "isn't talking all the time. It's more a case of small words, big actions. But then he can make his words count. I remember being with the Under-18 team the night before an international with Scotland. We had a dinner and Sam spoke a few words. Well, I was nearly in tears. Yes, we certainly won the game.
"We're still getting that kind of inspiration from Sam. He has always been the same and I don't expect he will ever change. From the older players we're getting a very professional attitude. It is something that they are teaching in the academy now – how to be a professional, how to handle yourself when all the pressure builds.
"Sam has caught all of that and you just have to listen to him and see how he goes about things to understand its value."
Never, Halfpenny suggests, has it run higher than in these last few days when recognition of the Welsh achievement has been mounting quite dramatically.
The New Zealand rugby authorities have been so dazzled, according to some sources, they might even flout their own rules and make an attempt to prise their native son Gatland away from his contract with Wales. One old All Black after another steps forward to praise Wales for the cleanness and the power of their rugby.
"The trouble with this," says Halfpenny, "is that it can take you away from the reality that the job isn't finished. There is so much still to be fought for. Playing in a World Cup final would mean everything to me, it hardly bears thinking about, to tell you the truth. In fact, you have to refuse to think about it. You have to pull yourself back. You just have to remember where you are at – and who you are."
It is not the hardest job for Leigh Halfpenny. He remembers easily enough the little guy who ran out of Penyrheol Comprehensive with all that kicking to do and he reflects, reasonably enough, so far, so good – and so few regrets.
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