By Peter Jackson
Leigh Halfpenny’s used to be the first name on the Wales team-sheet and not just because they named it back to front instead of the other way round.
The question to be answered by the end of the month is whether he reappears in the starting XV by the time the Wallabies land at their customary staging-post beside the Taff after the migratory flight north. For the first time in a long while, Halfpenny cannot be sure on that score, even less so as to whether it will be at full-back, on the wing or as emergency cover on the touchline.
If Wales are really serious about changing the way they play, a strong case can be made for a back three consisting of Liam Williams at full-back, Steff Evans on one wing, George North on the other. Whether Warren Gatland is prepared to go for broke remains to be seen.
His preference for Williams as a wing can be gauged by the fact that whenever Halfpenny has been fit, Gatland has picked his goalkicker at full-back, a sequence that goes back over a period of six years. Only once during that time has he started on the wing, against Japan last year.
Rob Howley, in charge following the head man’s secondment to the Lions, put him there to accommodate Williams at full-back but with an admission that made him sound less than convinced about the move, describing the Scarlet as ‘probably a left wing who can play full-back’.
Williams has always viewed full-back as his natural habitat but without making an issue of it. The wondrous try he engineered from deep during the first Lions’ Test ought to have made influential people like Gatland and Howley come to his way of thinking.
Halfpenny’s reliability in front of goal would surely put him at the top of any poll based on who you would want to land a penalty if your life depended on it. While his bravery, at times too unbending for his own good, has never been called into question, something else has: his attacking game.
In that respect, any full-back would suffer by comparison to Williams. The position affords him the panaromic view to let his imagination run riot and use those bandy-legged angles of running to bewitching effect.
If Wales are bold, Williams will be their 15 and Evans, shamefully under-used last season when Howley persisted in playing the out-of-tune Alex Cuthbert, will start on one wing. If they cannot break free from the shackles of their conservatism, Halfpenny will be back where he began, on the wing.
A strong case can be made for Wales picking him primarily as a goalkicker. Sir Clive Woodward’s mantra about never picking an England team without two specialist place kickers never rang more alarmingly true than in the weeks shortly after he had resigned in high dudgeon to try his luck running Southampton Football Club.
His successor, Andy Robinson, duly played safe against Australia at Twickenham in November 2004, picking one kicker at stand-off, Charlie Hodgson, and another at inside centre, Henry Paul. Robinson gave fate a mighty shove between the shoulder blades by taking Paul off in the first half hour for tactical reasons which begged the question why had he picked him in the first place. When injury forced Hodgson off with ten minutes to go, England found themselves seriously ham-strung off the tee. Without the safety net of someone like Ollie Barkley on the bench, they turned to a hit-and-hope merchant, Mike Tindall whose unsurprising failure to convert the last English try cost them the match, 19-21.
Going in with Dan Biggar, a specialist in his own right, need not leave Wales as vulnerable against Australia on Armistice Day as England were against the same opponent 13 years ago. Rhys Patchell’s presence on the bench alongside Halfpenny would cover every eventuality as well as providing a double safety net in front of the sticks.
Halfpenny knows how it feels to be dropped. He took his omission from the Lions’ Test XV badly, badly enough to make sure he avoids being hit by a double whammy from the same coach next month.
His cup of motivation, already full to the brim, will be positively overflowing on the occasion of his last match before Wales name their squad. The Scarlets’ opening Champions’ Cup tie on October 15 takes them where else but to Toulon and a heaven-sent opportunity for the undemonstrative Welshman to show his former employers that they should have treated him a bit better.
Those who fear that the severe damage to his knee just before the last World Cup has left more than a mark may disagree but, at 28 time ought still to be on Halfpenny’s side.