James Lawton: Only an act of God can threaten Leigh Halfpenny, immaculate converter
His accuracy is as inevitable as death and taxes
Among all the rituals of sport – from Rafa Nadal's pants-tugging to the furrowing of the Tiger's brow – there is a new model for brisk reassurance.
It is provided by Leigh Halfpenny. The Blessed Wilko took us into eternity with his version of a Samurai routine. Halfpenny takes off his skull cap like a builder discarding his hard hat before a tea-break, and then, bang, the business is done. Eight for eight on Saturday – the Wallabies have quickly learnt that his accuracy is as inevitable as death and taxes.
So far he has missed one kick, a wide-out try conversion attempt in the first minutes of a substitute stint. Then he proceeded to make almost everybody doubt that it happened.
He has mastered the art of the Immaculate Conversion so completely that it was good to be reminded in his latest run-out, by two tries of biting resolution, that he is also a masterful all-round rugby player.
There are battles for positions throughout the Lions squad and some even believe, however oddly, that captain Sam Warburton's name on the team sheet for the first Test is not a completely foregone conclusion. However, at full-back Halfpenny is so secure he could only be threatened by a negligent act of God.
His impact would be profound if only for his kicking and his running and his eye for every chance to turn defence into attack. But none of this is any more consistent than his belief that in the end he will always be the best judge of the reasons behind any of his success or failure.
He made this clear on the eve of the first great test of his career, the World Cup semi-final against France in Auckland 20 months ago. That was the game in which his huge penalty-kick might have carried Wales into the final despite the red card administered to Warburton. His head fell, for a second or two, when his kick dropped fractionally short of the crossbar.
Halfpenny made mention then of his slavish kicking practice under the supervision of his grandfather, who collected him each day from Penyrheol Comprehensive, but more than anything he wanted to talk of the values he had made for himself – and how they fuelled his exhilaration when he finally beat serious injury to get on the plane.
Halfpenny said: "Being a professional rugby player was always the thing I wanted most. I loved to watch Christian Cullen play for the All Blacks and then Shane Williams became another hero. All the time I never forgot what my dad said to me. He said that whatever you wanted in life you had to make sacrifices. I thought about that and I said to myself that I always wanted to look back without regrets.
"If all the sacrifices didn't pay I could always say, 'Well, I did my best.' I would never have any guilt on that score."
As Halfpenny spoke, England were already heading home for a major reappraisal of how their players approached the demand for grown-up professional sportsmen at the most competitive levels of sport. Halfpenny's explanation for the success of the young Welsh team, who were the most invigorating presence in the tournament, gave much to his young captain Warburton.
"I always had my dreams when my grandfather took me kicking," said Halfpenny, "and they were always big moments while playing for Wales. But when you become a professional you learn that the best lesson is that the job is never done. It's lovely to call home and hear the country is going mad and if I hadn't made this trip – as I nearly didn't – I'd have been at the Millennium with all the other Welshmen and women looking at the big screen.
"But it's different when you're in the team. Sam never stops saying we can have our big celebration when the job is done. We have to go from one stepping stone to another. Meanwhile, we can't get carried away.
"Mind you, I have to admit when they told me I was in I felt so lucky at having the chance to make an impact on the tournament that I wanted to shout. Sometimes when I consider playing in a World Cup final or a Lions Test I say to myself, 'It really doesn't bear thinking about'.''
There is enough to do, he suggests, lining up the posts and waiting for the break that offers a run to the daylight. It has created momentum that can only be described as imperious.
His nickname in the dressing room was probably as inevitable as the tide of goals and the remorseless work in the field. They call Halfpenny the Full Shilling, but in Australia the reality of a weighty piece of silver has turned into the promise of the very finest gold.
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