British & Irish Lions
Halfpenny still in shock at Lions call-up
Graham Jenkins
May 18, 2009
Wales' Lee Byrne and Leigh Halfpenny prepare for the British & Irish Lions' tour to South Africa, Pennyhill Park Hotel, Surrey, England, May 18, 2009
Welsh duo Lee Byrne (left) and Leigh Halfpenny stand among some of the 7,500 pieces of adidas kit that the British & Irish Lions will take to South Africa © Getty Images

Leigh Halfpenny embarked on the latest stage of his rugby education today as he joined up with the British & Irish Lions at their Surrey base ahead of their eagerly-anticipated tour of South Africa.

At just 20-years-old, the Wales and Cardiff Blues livewire is the youngest member of the class of 2009 and just like the first day at a new school he admitted to a few nerves as he did his best to blend in.

"I'm a bit nervous, a bit excited, and just don't know what to expect," he told as he joined all but one of the 36-man squad in the luxurious surroundings of the Pennyhill Park Hotel in Bagshot.

A week of preparation awaits Halfpenny, capped just six times by his country, and his fellow Lions before they depart for South Africa on Sunday for a 10-match tour that will culminate with a three-Test series against the Springboks.

The winger or fullback is still coming to terms with his meteoric rise on the international stage that began with an eye-catching debut for Wales in the autumn and promises to hit new heights in South Africa. His selection in head coach Ian McGeechan's squad last month capped a remarkable 12 months before which he had not even played a regional match.

"It's still incredible, unbelievable, to think about all this," he said looking down at his Lions shirt as if in disbelief. "I've only just met Ian McGeechan for the first time too and to see him there in the flesh was overwhelming really."

And what words of welcome did his new head coach, or should that be headmaster, have for his youngest charge?

"He said that shirt looks superb and suits you," relayed a smiling Halfpenny, delighted to have finally met the Lions legend who holds the key to his summer contribution.

Despite his relative inexperience, the Swansea-born star has backed himself to make an impact on the hard and testing grounds of South Africa.

"I wouldn't be here otherwise," he insisted. "Every player feels they are in contention to pull on that Test jersey and why not. I'll take things as they come and just try my best."

The prospect of tackling the Springboks also holds no fear for the youngster having made his international bow against the world champions at the Millennium Stadium in November.

"My first tackle was against [Pierre] Spies but I managed to bring him down and that gave me a bit of confidence," recalled the comparatively slight 5ft 10in and 13st Halfpenny of his meeting with South Africa's 6ft 4in and 17st giant. "I wasn't really sure going into the game how physical it was going to be and you can't really get any bigger than Spies.

"I was glad I was able to bring him down and I remember getting a few line breaks aswell. Things went well and I got on the scoreboard with a penalty so I was pleased with my first game for Wales but obviously disappointed that we didn't get the result that day. We could and perhaps should have got the result."

Looming in a few weeks time is another potential meeting with one of his idols - Springboks winger Bryan Habana - a challenge he would relish.

"I have grown up watching him and he's scored some terrific tries," he enthused, "and I was up against him in my first game - it doesn't get much easier than that! It would be great to face him again with a Lions Test jersey on."

It's all new for Halfpenny - not just the company of the best rugby players the Home Unions can muster but also the idea of touring. This year's visits to Paris and Rome in the Six Nations offered an insight into what is involved but apart from that his experience is limited.

"The furthest I've been in terms of touring is Ireland with the U19s," he recalled referring to the IRB U19 World Championships in 2007, "and the U20 tournament [Junior World Championship] was in Wales so I haven't really toured that much."

And not even his holidays have taken him anywhere near South Africa suggesting that this summer's tour is going to be eye-opening in more ways than one.

Luckily he has some more experienced countrymen around him to help him navigate this latest chapter in his burgeoning career.

"I came up here with Lee Byrne," said Halfpenny, "he's a bit more experienced than me and has played a few more games, met the other boys a few more times than I have, but the likes of Martyn Williams and Shane Williams have also introduced me to players."

Not surprisingly Halfpenny's memories of the Lions come from his TV rather than his own recollections.

"I remember 1997 [the Lions last visit to South Africa], but mainly through the DVDs that I watched as I got more interested in the sport as I grew older. And then there was Australia [2001], when Ronan O'Gara had a bit of a hard time against the Waratahs."

Time will tell whether this tour makes a brutal impression on Halfpenny to rival that suffered by the unfortunate O'Gara that day. But one thing for sure is that the rising star is keen to learn - let's just hope the Springboks have not done their homework.


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