Humble perfectionist Halfpenny a worthy centurion

Humble perfectionist Halfpenny a worthy centurion

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Leigh Halfpenny kicked a touchline conversion in his 99th Wales international after coming on as a replacement against France in March 2023
Leigh Halfpenny kicked a touchline conversion in his 99th Wales international after coming on as a replacement against France in March 2023

“Nobody deserves 100 Wales caps more than Leigh Halfpenny. He is the ultimate professional.”

Not a quote that can be attributed to just one individual when talking about Wales’ popular full-back ahead of his magical milestone this weekend.

It is what everybody espouses when asked for their recollections of the 34-year-old who has battled to defy the odds.

It has been a long wait but Halfpenny will join Wales’ illustrious 100-cap club on Saturday when he takes to the field against England in Cardiff.

The recognisable scrum cap and unerring boot have become Halfpenny trademarks and also defining images of Wales’ success for more than a decade.

He is a man who does his talking on the field. A quiet demeanour but fearless nature has seen Warren Gatland calling him the best defensive full-back in the world. Once deemed too small for professional rugby, Halfpenny has continually proved his doubters wrong.

Halfpenny started rugby life as a wing and burst on to the international scene when he made his debut as a teenager in 2008 against South Africa.

Almost 15 years later, he will become the ninth man to play 100 internationals for Wales, following in the footsteps of Alun Wyn Jones, Gethin Jenkins, George North, Dan Biggar, Stephen Jones, Gareth Thomas, Martyn Williams and Taulupe Faletau.

Halfpenny has also achieved remarkable things with the British and Irish Lions, playing four Tests, including a man-of-the-series display in the 2-1 victory over Australia in 2013.

Second time lucky

He has been here before with a century celebration but will hope things end very differently. He marked his 100th international for Wales and the Lions against Canada in Cardiff in 2021 but celebrations were cruelly cut short in the opening minute.

Halfpenny suffered a serious knee injury and it was 19 months before he returned to the international stage.

Leigh Halfpenny injured during his 100th international against Canada in July 2021
Leigh Halfpenny was injured during his 100th international against Canada in July 2021

Injuries are part of his story, forced to miss the 2015 World Cup having suffered another serious knee problem in the final warm-up game against Italy, and he also endured periods on the sidelines because of concussion.

Halfpenny’s club career includes stints with Cardiff, Toulon and Scarlets, where he has just been released. So he finds himself looking for work at the same time as achieving this magical milestone and trying to prove he should be selected for a third World Cup.

Where it all began

Gorseinon rugby club
Gorseinon rugby club

Gorseinon RFC, in a small Swansea suburb, is where it started. The ‘Leigh Halfpenny pavilion’ now stands proudly there and the clubhouse has a shrine of caps and jerseys dedicated to one of the village’s most famous sons.

Grandfather Malcolm was one of the driving forces in his early career, picking Halfpenny up from Penyrheol School to take him to goal-kicking practice.

There are stories of Christmas Day sessions, also driving around west Wales in early summer looking for a rugby field where the goalposts had not yet been taken down.

These are not myth though – this was his reality with mother Estelle spending many hours driving her son to games and training.

“If you are counting Christmas Days and Boxing Days he came down to kick with his grandfather, I wouldn’t be able to work out the countless hours, but it would be a lifetime for other people,” said Gorseinon chairman Ian Murphy.

“He loved his rugby and was always passionate and hard-working.”

Leigh Halfpenny was destined to be a Wales rugby star from a young age
Leigh Halfpenny was destined to be a Wales rugby star from a young age

Halfpenny was involved in the same Gorseinon junior side as Wales fly-half Dan Biggar.

“It was evident from a young age Leigh was quite special,” Murphy recalls.

“Rob Steele was the coach and Dan played in the same special side and they won many championships.

“Leigh was spectacular from the start, fast and skilful which he worked hard to develop.”

Inside the two future internationals was scrum-half and Halfpenny’s lifelong friend Tim O’Kelly.

“My job was easy with Dan and Leigh outside me, so we won a few trophies with those two in our team,” said O’Kelly.

“We had a decent side but we had those two stars also, so we have great memories growing up.”

Leigh Halfpenny with his mother Estelle and father Steve
Leigh Halfpenny with his mother Estelle and father Steve

Biggar and better

So it will be two Gorseinon junior players who will have reached the 100-cap Wales mark, with Biggar on the replacements bench for Halfpenny’s special day this Saturday.

“When Leigh got named this weekend, we noted we have 207 caps between us and I said we hadn’t done badly for two boys who played for Gorseinon Under-13s together,” said Biggar.

“It is incredible only nine players will have played 100 internationals for Wales and two of them have come from one small club in Swansea.

“We had a great age-grade system and Gorseinon should be proud of Leigh.”

Halfpenny’s obsessive strive for perfection has always been evident on and off the field. Scarlets and Wales team-mate Rhys Patchell was Halfpenny’s regular room-mate, while Mike Phillips tells a story of sharing with Halfpenny on a Lions tour and taken aback by his team-mate doing his breathing exercises.

“He is a complicated and complex guy and puts a lot of pressure on himself,” said Biggar.

“He wants every team, performance, training or gym session to be perfect. That has probably got him to where he is today. He is as level-headed, hard-working and dedicated as anybody you will find.

“I don’t think anybody deserves 100 caps more for his sheer commitment to not give in. He would have probably been well past that mark without the amount of serious injuries.

“When the squad was announced, the overriding emotion from the squad is probably relief, because we know how much of a stress it has been recently for Leigh trying to achieve this.

“He has had to pull out of games recently with tweaks. His mentality of being absolutely desperate to get to 100 caps has driven him and we are over the moon.”

Breaking through

Leigh Halfpenny in action on his international debut against South Africa in 2008
Leigh Halfpenny in action on his international debut against South Africa in 2008

Biggar and Halfpenny were team-mates in the Ospreys academy where Halfpenny suffered his first setback.

Ospreys said they could not offer Halfpenny a contract thinking he was too small and he was devastated.

That story later came out in the press and then academy manager Gethin Watts was identified publicly as the man who had let Halfpenny go.

Soon after Halfpenny conducted another interview to mark his 2009 Lions selection. At the end of the conversation, Halfpenny asked the journalist not to criticise anyone at Ospreys for letting him go.

He said Watts had sent a letter to him congratulating him on what he had done and admitted the Ospreys had made a mistake.

Halfpenny commented it took a man to write a letter like that. It also took a man, who had only just turned 20, to make such a request.

He initially continued his education and started studying dentistry at Cardiff University.

Cardiff Blues offered Halfpenny a place in their academy and he played for the Cardiff club side in the Welsh Premiership.

He made his regional debut against Ulster in May 2008. After starring for Wales Under-20s in the 2008 Junior World Championships and impressing for his region in the early season, Halfpenny was selected by Gatland for his senior Wales debut aged 19 in the 2008 autumn series.

Leigh Halfpenny (C) won his first cap against South Africa in November 2008 alongside fellow new cap Andy Powell (R) in the same game Adam Jones played his 50th international
Leigh Halfpenny (C) won his first cap against South Africa in November 2008 alongside fellow new cap Andy Powell (R) in the same game Adam Jones played his 50th international

Gatland comes calling

The big day came against the Springboks where Halfpenny faced a baptism of fire against World Cup-winning wing Bryan Habana.

In 1994, Halfpenny was just five when he went to Cardiff to watch Wales play South Africa with his auntie. He went to see his idol Neil Jenkins, the former Wales fly-half who is now their skills coach, and told his auntie there and then “he was going to play for Wales one day and kick the ball through the posts just like Neil”.

Fourteen years later that became a reality and the buses came up from Gorseinon to see Halfpenny, just as they will this weekend.

“We remember his first cap, we were all there as we went up on the buses,” said club chairman Murphy.

“It seems a long time ago but now we can go and see his 100th Wales international.”

It was a day Wales prop Adam Jones was celebrating his 50th cap.

“Leigh does not look a lot older now but he looked about 15 then,” said Jones.

“His body has developed since into this little ball of muscle. He is a great kid, really quiet but great fun when he has a few beers in him, which is very rare. I am chuffed to bits for him now.”

That debut kicked off a glittering career which has included the 2012 Grand Slam, three Six Nations titles and being a part of a team that reached two World Cup semi-finals.

Leigh Halfpenny celebrates the 2012 Grand Slam success
Leigh Halfpenny celebrates the 2012 Grand Slam success

Dynamic duo

It was Halfpenny’s childhood hero Jenkins who was handed the unenviable task of taking the kicking coach mantle from Leigh’s grandfather.

Jenkins is Wales’ top points scorer in history with 1,049 and Halfpenny third on the list with 785, with Stephen Jones sandwiched between them.

They have formed a formidable bond with Jenkins acting as Halfpenny’s mentor.

“It is difficult to put into words,” said Jenkins.

“I have known him a very long time since he was a young kid and it gives you great pleasure to see where they come from and where they end up.

“I think I can write a book on a lot of the conversations we have had over a long period of time. I have always said to him that I believe he was the best in the world at a given time, and he still is now.

“Sometimes it is up to me to push him to make him believe that. He is a fantastic player, special person and everything that comes his way he fully deserves.”

Leigh Halfpenny kicking at goal in 2011 with Neil Jenkins watching on
Neil Jenkins and Leigh Halfpenny have both kicked British and Irish Lions to series victories in 1997 and 2013 respectively

Biggar added: “Leigh’s relationship with Neil is special. You can hear across the pitch sometimes the odd expletive coming from Leigh’s mouth if he has missed a couple of kicks and Jenks trying to calm him down.

“Jenks does not panic and that gives Leigh confidence if he gets worked up, he has Neil as a leveller.

“So Neil is as important for Leigh mentally as he is tactically and technically. He is good at calming him down because if Leigh misses one out of 30 kicks in training, he won’t sleep at night.

“There is not a huge amount of chat from Neil but – similar to myself – Leigh would say without Jenks, he would not have had the career he has had.”

Sunday club

Gorseinon pitch where Leigh Halfpenny honed his craft
The Gorseinon pitch where Leigh Halfpenny honed his craft

If all goes to plan this weekend, Gorseinon are planning a celebration party down the club on Sunday.

“He’s got the freedom of Gorseinon, he can probably go and rob the bar keys and just get a slap on the wrist if he gets caught,” joked Biggar.

Gorseinon chairman Murphy added: “We are incredibly proud of Leigh.

“He is a treasure to us. He has had setbacks with his injuries, been a hero in his recovery. He is an ambassador to our club, community, family and Wales.

“He spends every spare moment he can down the club to either practice, or if there are events with the juniors he is here for hours having his photograph taken and signing autographs.

“The young players aspire to be like Leigh. Why wouldn’t they? He is very humble, has kept his feet on the ground and still comes here with his friends he grew up with.”

Leigh Halfpenny celebrates his 50th Wales cap against Ireland in 2014
Leigh Halfpenny celebrated his 50th Wales cap against Ireland in 2014

One of those friends says Halfpenny remains a “Gorseinon boy”.

“I have known Leigh since I was three and am still very close now,” said O’Kelly.

“He has never forgotten where he has come from with his old Gorseinon friends. He is a gentleman, a big family man with his fiancee Jess and daughters Lily and Nora and always has time for everybody.

“There are almost two different people. Your close friend Leigh Halfpenny and the superstar who plays rugby. It is incredible he remains the same whatever.

“He deserves all the accolades. It has been awesome watching his career, we have had some great days out following him around and next will be his 100th Wales cap. It is emotional just thinking about it.”

Two little bits of Gorseinon

Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny have scored 1,390 international points for Wales between them
Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny have scored 1,390 international points for Wales between them

Biggar will ensure there will be a little bit of Gorseinon in that Welsh dressing room on Saturday.

“We have been lucky our careers have been in sync and most of our 100 caps we have been a part of together,” said Biggar.

“I am glad to be involved on Saturday and be part of his day. We get to share the moment with the amount we have shared on the field already.

“Leigh is one of the greats of Welsh and northern hemisphere rugby. Nobody is more deserving of this accolade.”

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