After many months of transfer rumours and gossip, Welsh and British and Irish Lions star, Leigh Halfpenny has found a new home. That home being back in Wales, with the Scarlets for the reigning Pro League Champions.
The player had been in France with French giants Toulon for the last three seasons, winning the European Cup with the club in 2015. He has suffered a few injuries during this period and has been stories a few times of the extrovert and club president, Mourad Boudjellal looking to move the player on, but there is no doubt his time at the club will be rated as a success, with the player winning many games with his dead eye precision goal kicking.
When it became clear that the player was going to be moving on a number of clubs were alerted to his availability such as Bath, Leicester, Saracens, Scarlets, Ospreys and his former employers, Cardiff Blues. A few months back it appeared that Cardiff Blues would be where he would be playing next, but there was an issue with the length of his contract, and the move fell through. Cardiff Blues in recent weeks made it clear that an offer was still on the table, with the WRU supporting the pro sides by paying 60% of any contract for the player, with the player being on a national dual contract. However, Cardiff Blues at this time is not the most enticing place for a player with the stature of Leigh Halfpenny. Financially they are struggling, recently they made the decision to release Franco Van Der Merwe from his contract and he will now ply his trade at London Irish. Van Der Merwe was only signed from Ulster this year and was due to make his debut this season for the Welsh capital side, but a decision has been made to release and save some money. Cardiff Blues will not be in The European Rugby Champions Cup this coming season, and until the development of Cardiff Arms Park is underway and completed, then do not see the great club being a force in European rugby. The Scarlets are in The European Champions Cup, after a successful campaign last year will look to progress in Europe into the latter stages. When Halfpenny decided back to Wales was what he wanted or circumstances dictated, then The Scarlets was always going to be an alluring proposition.
The Scarlets have a side next year which is full of ability, the back line could easily be Halfpenny, Johnny McNicholl, Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams, Steff Evans, Rhys Patchell and Gareth Davies. And with forwards such as Rob Evans, Ken Owens, Sansom Lee, Tadhg Beirne, Jake Ball, Aaron Shingler, John Barclay, Will Boyde and James Davies, then they really should be setting their intentions very high. When they lost Liam Williams at the end of the season to European Champions, Saracens, they may have thought they would have to tinker with the backline a bit, but now they have replaced Williams with Halfpenny, and will be interesting to see if two of the coaches in particular at the West Wales side, in Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones can inject some attacking thrust into the 72 times capped Welsh international. In recent years, he has become a trusted custodian as the last man in defence, extremely safe under the high ball, makes some last ditch try saving tackles and as always, putting the ball between the posts whenever given the opportunity. However, cutting the defensive line in attack, running the ball back when loose kicks come his way, and before in support in attack, the player has not been as noticeable, so will be interesting to see if his injuries have curtailed that side of his game or just the teams he has been playing for this side of the game is not as encouraged so much. No doubt Pivac and Jones encourage their players to play heads up rugby, so will be fascinating to see how that develops.
As a Cardiff Blues fan, I am disappointed that a player we brought up through the ranks and guided to turn the player into a fantastic player has opted not to return to the shirt, but from a pure rugby perspective I totally understand the player’s decision and I wish him well this coming season and beyond. For all Welsh fans to have a high profile player back playing is a major boost, and children in West Wales will get to see a Welsh rugby star on the world stage many times this season and upcoming seasons, just wish it was at Cardiff Arms Park!
Good luck Leigh for The Scarlets and for Wales, looking forward to seeing how it all goes.