Sport can be cruel. And don’t Clermont know it. The club who’ve won just one of their 12 Top 14 finals were beaten in the dying minutes of extra-time in Friday’s semi-final by Racing 92. Juan Imhoff scored the try, Dan Carter kicked the conversion and it’s the Parisians heading off to Barcelona’s Nou Camp to play Toulon in front of 98,000 fans.
One man who knows all about the cruelty of sport is Leigh Halfpenny. In September the Toulon and Wales full-back suffered a serious knee injury in a World Cup warm-up match against Italy. It left him “devastated” but also determined to get back on the pitch as soon as possible. “Injuries are part of professional sport and life has to go on,” reflected Halfpenny a few days after his injury.
But the life that followed for Halfpenny wasn’t easy. He watched the World Cup on television, his leg in a cast and his frustration palpable as he kept social media abreast of his rehabilitation. He sat out the Six Nations but was expected to be fit for Toulon in April; instead it was revealed that same month that he required more surgery and the comeback was put on ice.
There was a further setback in May, nothing serious, just a twinge, but enough to seemingly shatter once and for all the hopes Toulon had that Halfpenny would feature in the tail end of the Top 14 season.
Then, to everyone’s surprise, he was named in the starting XV for Saturday’s semi-final against Montpellier. “The Halfpenny Gamble” was the headline in Friday’s Midi Olympique, the paper explaining that Toulon’s director of rugby, Bernard Laporte, was willing to risk the Welshman despite the fact he hadn’t played a competitive match for nine months.
Laporte didn’t get to where he is today by taking reckless risks. He weighed up the pros and cons, and decided that though Halfpenny would obviously lack match fitness, his big game temperament and goal-kicking prowess mitigated against his physical condition.
Laporte’s gamble paid off. Not only did Halfpenny kick 17 points in Toulon’s 27-18 win over Montpellier, he also made the crucial line break that allowed Ma’a Nonu to power over the try-line. It was some performance, and it surprised no one within the Toulon camp. “He’s a kicker of the stature of Jonny Wilkinson,” said Laporte. “Without wishing to belittle anyone else, he’s the only kicker of international class in the squad…to have him with us changes the deal.”
Halfpenny’s goalkicking could prove decisive on Friday against Dan Carter, not exactly a novice in that department. Without the Welshman, Racing would have travelled to the Nou Camp as clear favourites because Toulon’s goal-kicking has been woeful for most of the season. At one point a couple of months ago, their success rate was 69%, with only Pau and Stade Francais guilty of missing more kicks at goal in the Top 14.
As Laporte said, the return of Halfpenny changes the deal and his comeback is a tribute to the 27-year-old’s fortitude. “He’s really impressed me by his immense work ethic,” said Gilles Allou, Toulon’s conditioning coach, in an interview in Monday’s Midi Olympique. “In this regard he reminds me of Jonny Wilkinson. We even had to put the brakes on him because he wanted to do too much. He’s a great player but first and foremost he’s a great professional.”
The pair have shared the highs and lows of the last nine months, working together on an almost daily basis, and throughout the dragging, dispiriting sessions of rehab Halfpenny’s focus remained resolute. “He may have had some doubts but I never saw his head drop nor a slacking off,” explained Allou. “Not even when he suffered the setbacks. With this strength of character we knew he’d get there in the end.”
Similarly Laporte told reporters after Saturday’s semi-final victory that he “never had any doubts” about starting with Halfpenny. “From the moment I knew he no longer had any problems I said to myself ‘he’ll play’. And it’s great because if he’d not played I’m not sure we would’ve won.”
Leigh Halfpenny is now just 80 minutes from becoming the first Welshman in the professional era to win a Top 14 title. If he does, says Midi Olympique, “it will complete perhaps the most amazing comeback in the history of the championship”.