British & Irish Lion Leigh Halfpenny made his long-awaited return from injury this weekend in fine style as Toulon secured their spot in the Top 14 final.
The Wales full-back – who was man of the series on the historic Lions Tour of Australia in 2013 – kicked 17 points and created former All Black Ma’a Nonu’s pivotal try during the 27-18 semi-final win over Montpellier.
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Halfpenny suffered a serious knee injury last September during Wales’ World Cup warm-up victory over Italy in Cardiff and was forced to miss the World Cup and this year’s Championship as a result.
He had been expected to return in April after having an operation on his knee, but suffered a setback which meant he was not considered for Wales' current tour of New Zealand
But his return is a welcome boost to rugby fans everywhere – not least The British & Irish Lions who will hope the 27-year-old can keep his fitness to be in contention for next year’s tour to New Zealand.
And Toulon head coach Bernard Laporte – whose side will take on Dan Carter’s Racing 92 in the Top 14 final – admits his side are a different beast with Halfpenny in the line-up.
“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.
“I 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.”
Great feeling to be back on the field with my @RCTofficiel brothers. Thanks for all the messages ??#toulonfamily ??? pic.twitter.com/8LrLYZw6ei
— Leigh Halfpenny (@LeighHalfpenny1) June 19, 2016
Nerveless goal-kicking is familiar to Lions fans, it was Halfpenny who did the damage in the tourists’ first Test win over the Wallabies in Brisbane in 2013.
But it is his work ethic off the pitch that has also caught the eye – according to Toulon conditioning coach Gilles Allou in an interview in Monday’s Midi Olympique.
“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," he said.
“He may have had some doubts but I never saw his head drop nor a slacking off. Not even when he suffered the setbacks. With this strength of character we knew he’d get there in the end.”