Leigh Halfpenny: The stuff of dreams
As the IRB Junior World Championship nears its kick-off in Argentina, we hear from one of its more illustrious recent graduates.
"It's what dreams are made of." A statement which perfectly sums up Leigh Halfpenny's rise from one of the stars of the IRB Junior World Championship to his country's youngest Lion for over 40 years, a career journey that happened in less than a year.
Halfpenny had been one of the players tipped to make the step up from Under 20 level to the test arena after his performances for Wales in the inaugural Championship on home soil in 2008, but few expected the graduation to be so swift.
The wing bowed out from age grade rugby with the target of "getting a few games with the Cardiff Blues" the following season, but quickly found himself playing in the Magners League and Heineken Cup.
Then came a text that was to rocket the then 19-year-old into the media spotlight and prompt a test debut against world champions South Africa, to face none other than the IRB Player of the Year Bryan Habana, at the Millennium Stadium.
"One of the most memorable occasions of my life was getting the text to say I had been picked for the Welsh squad in the Autumn tests, which was unbelievable and things just went from there really quickly," Halfpenny told Total Rugby Radio.
Tears of joy
"I rang my parents and told my mate who was with me. It was in a café eating food after training. My mate was shocked, and chuffed for me, and my parents were both in tears to me on the phone.
"It was a pretty special day and everything I had dreamed of. I was just pleased to get the text. I didn't think I would appear much in the November tests, then I found myself starting against South Africa for my debut. That was pretty daunting, but I just tried to go out there and enjoy it as much as I could and it was a really special day.
"I just went out there and treated him [Habana] as any other opponent and tried as best I could to not let him get advantage of me. He is someone I have looked up to growing up and he is a pretty special player and it was just great to be facing him.
"Since then I have been on a Barbarians tour with him and ended up rooming with him. We had a good time on that tour and that is what rugby is all about, making friendships all over the world. That is what rugby can do for you."
Halfpenny scored his first test tries a week later against Canada and then started against New Zealand before getting his first taste of Six Nations action, a competition he had grown up watching on television or in the stands at the Millennium Stadium.
"It was unbelievable to find yourself on the other side of the pitch really and performing in front of a packed Millennium Stadium. It was everything I had dreamed of and certainly lived up to what I thought it would be like playing in those competitions. It was just superb."
Jumping around like mad
If he thought his season couldn't get any better then he was wrong as, on 22 April 2009, he was named in the British & Irish Lions squad to tour South Africa in the summer - the youngest Welshman since Keith Jarrett in 1968 to receive the honour.
A thigh injury delayed his departure for South Africa and restricted him to only one appearance in the famous red jersey, in the 26-24 win over the Free State Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, and the injury did then force him out of a tour, which the Lions ultimately lost 2-1.
"That season was just highlight after highlight. It is just what dreams are made of and to be picked for the Lions in your first year, it was just incredible," recalled the Swansea-born wing.
"I just remember sitting at home watching Sky Sports to see the team announcement, with my mate, and when I heard my name called out it was just unreal and I broke down in tears because it was just too much, too crazy.
"I remember jumping around the house going mad because I had just been picked and that was a pretty special day I will never forget."
Handling the expectation
With such a whirlwind introduction to the test arena, it was perhaps inevitable that Halfpenny would find the new level of expectation of him a little difficult to handle this season. However, now having rediscovered his enthusiasm for the game, he has a tour of New Zealand to look forward to next month.
"It [the expectation] is something I learnt a lot about this season. The expectation I felt last year, there wasn't really much on me and I just went out there and just performed as well as I could. I found myself towards the end of the season that I wasn't just a nobody, I am someone that people know about and teams analyse.
"I found it difficult to deal with the expectation to start with and I did struggle with it. It is not easy to handle and it is tough but this season has been a real learning curve for me. Just speaking to coaches about it, trying to get back to where I was and just learning that you go out there and enjoy your rugby, why you started playing rugby, because you enjoy it."
Halfpenny, though, is quick to point out that the transition would have been far harder were it not for his experiences at the IRB Junior World Championship in 2008, playing alongside the likes of Dan Biggar, Sam Warburton, Jonathan Davies and Daniel Evans, who have all followed him into the Welsh national side.
"Without a doubt it helped. It really prepares you and you are also testing yourself against the best in the world at your age. A lot of those boys I played against are now playing on an international level so it proves the Junior World Championships are bringing stars of the future through.
A massive opportunity
"It is preparing them for bigger things to come ahead in their rugby career. If I hadn't played in 2008 I would have struggled a bit more if I had been brought into a test level earlier.
"I would have struggled more dealing with big crowds and things, because before the Junior World Championship I hadn't played in front of a big crowd and that just prepares you for bigger crowds, expectations, off the field interviews and dealing with the media. Just everything about the Junior World Championship really prepares you for the bigger things to come.
"It gives you great confidence when you compete with the likes of New Zealand, South Africa and the top teams in the world and it is great preparation for youngsters coming through the system. There are a lot who have come through that team and it shows it is working."
What advice then would Halfpenny, who could be lining up against South Africa on 5 June the day the IRB Junior World Championship starts in Argentina, have for the latest crop of Under 20 players hoping to follow in his footsteps?
"Just to go out and relish the whole competition really and prepare yourself as best as you can," came the reply from Halfpenny, who hopes to catch some of the matches in the tournament.
"Go out and show the talent you have got. They have been picked in that team because they have got exceptional talent so just go out and show it, don't hide in a shell, just go out and play with a smile on your face and make the most of it."
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