Leigh Halfpenny - new and improved

Having bulked up for last year;s Autumn Internationals, the Welsh wing talks to Rugby World to discuss why the sudden gym interest.

There’s a new Leigh Halfpenny taking to Europe’s rugby pitches this season; a bigger and better version of the previous one. One look at the video of his ten-metre sprint in Wales testing is enough to see the change as the wing shows off his new bulging muscles. He’s upped his weight from 12st 8lb to 13st 3lb, with the difference particularly noticeable in his upper body. So what’s behind this incredible bulk? “It was a personal choice and I just wanted to get bigger and stronger,” says the 21-year-old. “I worked hard in pre-season, sometimes doing two weights sessions a day in the morning and afternoon, as I wanted to put on a bit more bulk. I’ve been spending a lot of hours in the gym, but as long as it pays off it’s worth it.”

Halfpenny hasn’t been pumping iron to impress the ladies but his coaches. He wants to bring a new dimension to his game, to add power to his pace. Furthermore, he has been working with Casey Laulala, the former All Black centre who has had such a positive influence on Cardiff Blues’ game, to improve his footwork too. “I’m trying to better myself as a player,” explains Halfpenny.

“I thought of ways I could work harder on my game in pre-season and what I could improve on. I want to make more of an impact – to make more line breaks, to keep the ball when running at bigger forwards, to get over the gain-line more, to break tackles and so on. With Casey I’ve been doing extra work on my footwork and how to beat a player. I’m trying to become a better sidestepper. He’s got a great step so I’m trying to pick things up from him so I can beat my man, go round someone and go through the tackle.”

“Sometimes you’ll feel there’s nothing on in a game and Casey will get the ball and just make something out of nothing. He’s been great at creating things for us. Every time he gets the ball you don’t know what’s going to happen but you’re confident that something is going to happen and it’s going to be good.

“It’s definitely something I’m trying to do as a player too. Sometimes I’ll set up a tackle and not create much, so I’m trying to stay up in the tackle and get offloads away, or break the tackle. I’m still working on it and it’s starting to pay off this season. I’m feeling the benefits.”

Halfpenny’s new skills will be given a stern test this month as Wales face Australia, South Africa, Fiji and New Zealand on consecutive weekends. He is looking forward to the challenge and is excited about the prospect of once again playing against Bryan Habana and Joe Rokocoko – he made his debut marking the former two years ago and faced the latter in New Zealand over the summer. “Joe has been one of my big, big role models as a player; some of his try-scoring… it’s unbelievable finishing at times and he’s just so fast. I was lucky enough to play in the same team as him and Bryan for the Barbarians last year. I got on well with them off the field and it’ll be good to test myself against them.”

“It’s a great challenge but that’s what you want to do as a player, to test yourself against the best in the world, improve and get confidence. I’m looking forward to doing that this autumn if I’m picked.”

Halfpenny doesn’t really need to add that caveat; he’s started the last three Tests for Wales against South Africa and New Zealand (twice) and has carried his form from the end of last season into the start of this, so should form part of the back-three unit with Ospreys Lee Byrne and Shane Williams.

Wales have won only two Tests in 2010 – against Scotland and Italy in the Six Nations – so if they’re to start building momentum for the World Cup they need to pick up some significant victories this month. Halfpenny says firmly: “If we have ambitions to win the World Cup it starts this November. It’s vital for our preparation for the World Cup. We all want to win and we want to be confident going into the World Cup, so we need to play against the best.”

“It’ll be tough but the only way to get confidence is to get results against these teams and there’s no reason why we can’t. We learnt a lot in the summer when we pushed South Africa and New Zealand close and the way the game is going, with a lot more running, is great. We’ve all been working hard and we’re looking to improve.”

It’s obvious from talking to Halfpenny that he’s not someone with his head in the clouds. In the past two years he’s established himself as a regular starter for Cardiff Blues and Wales, and rather than get caught up in the hype of Welsh rugby he has a steely determination to continually improve – both individually and collectively as a team. It’s impressive to see such focus and drive in one so young. “I try to keep my head down, work hard and don’t take in too many outside influences,” he says. “If I don’t think about it, it can’t bother me and I can stick to what worked for me in that first season.”

“It took a lot of hard work for me before I broke through to the international side and I think the trick is to remember and hold onto that. As soon as you think you’ve made it – whether you’ve won two caps or 20 – that’s when you’re probably in trouble.”

Learn more about Leigh’s teammates at Wales…

Dwayne Peel

Andy Powell

Alun Wyn Jones