Halfpenny revels in return to Wales
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: When Leigh Halfpenny went down clutching his knee in agony in a pre-World Cup warm-up match last year, there was a collective sigh of despair throughout Wales.
The fullback's chance of starring at Rugby Union's showpiece competition went up in smoke against Italy, Halfpenny having to undergo operations on his knee that left his club Toulon's owner Mourad Boudjellal fuming.
But Halfpenny, Welsh rugby's third highest points scorer after Neil Jenkins and Stephen Jones, is now back for Wales for the first time in 14 months, having made his return in Toulon colours in last season's Top 14 semifinals.
"I'm just absolutely delighted to hear my name read out to start against Australia, I'm just over the moon to be playing after such a long spell away," Halfpenny said ahead of Saturday's one-off Test against the Wallabies in Cardiff.
"I've missed it, I've missed it a heck of a lot. I can't wait for Saturday.
"Just that feeling you get when you put that red jersey on with your teammates and run out into that Principality Stadium, there is no feeling like it. I can't wait for that again."
Halfpenny added that his absence from the international scene had felt "like a long time out", but that the coaching staff had kept the former Cardiff Blues player in the loop.
"During the injury period last season, the Welsh staff were amazing in having me back, during Christmas and again during the Six Nations," he said.
"It was great to be back amongst the boys and work with the medical staff here, who were extremely helpful in my recovery.
"It was good to have that change in environment and be back in home in Wales to see family and things like which helped as well after being away for a while," said the fullback who signed for big-spending Toulon in 2014 after being named man-of-the-series in the winning British and Irish Lions tour of Australia in 2013.
Halfpenny insisted that his time off the paddock had been well spent.
"When you are injured, you want to use that time to improve on all aspects of your game, especially when you are out for such a lengthy period," the 27-year-old said.
"You get a lot of time to work on your skills and other aspects of your game. Each week when I played I felt the knee was getting better, pushing off wasn't the same as before but the surgeon told me that would be the case, now it is feeling normal again."
There have been many rumours about Halfpenny's future at Toulon, amid further discussions about Boudjellal's future.
But the fullback was full of praise for Toulon.
"That buzz, that feel from the stadium, the atmosphere is as close to international level as you get," he said of Toulon's famed Stade Mayol.
"It gives you a huge lift. When you come off the bus, you go through that tunnel of the crowd, which is awesome, then there's a real buzz when you get into the Stade Mayol. But obviously going into the Principality Stadium, you get that even more!"
Halfpenny will be up against one of the most athletics and free-running opponents in Israel Folau, a player he described as "quality".
"He's very dangerous with ball in hand, very good in the air," he said. "They've got quality across the park, we need to do everything right, be at our best in defence, execute our roles.
"So many times against Australia we've lost the game in the last minute, we need to learn from those. We have to execute our roles in both attack and defence."
Indeed Wales are on an 11-match losing streak to Australia, but forwards coach Rob McBryde insisted that that statistic "hasn't even entered our minds".
"It's a different group of players on both sides," the former Wales hooker said. "It's a different make up, we're missing a couple of key individuals. But it's a younger group. It's freshened things up.
"Australia are ranked above us and they're always a quality team."
McBryde admitted that the opportunity to better World Rugby rankings above the May draw for the 2019 World Cup was also on their minds.
"We know we can help our cause in 2019," he said. "It does bring more importance in bringing those wins in the coming months."