MOST of the Welsh players could rattle off a number of highlights this week in recounting matches with Scotland, and while they spoke graciously and with respect for their Celtic cousins there was an unmistakable air of confidence that comes from having finished on the winning side in the last five meetings.
But few players have inflicted as many fatal blows on the Scots as their full-back Leigh Halfpenny. At 5ft 10in and just over 13 stones, he has been left by Shane Williams to stand alone in a Welsh back line giant by comparison with the big quartet of Mike Phillips, Dan Biggar, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Phillips flanked by two of the biggest wings in the tournament in Alex Cuthbert and George North. But they need Halfpenny, he of quick footwork, startling pace, brave last-line defending and a goal-kicking boot with the precision and thrust of an Exocet.
Halfpenny has scored 32 points against Scotland in three Test meetings, including four tries, and, since taking over from Rhys Priestland as Wales’ goal-kicker midway through last season’s Grand Slam campaign, he has gone on to score 184 points in his last 15 Tests, the vast majority of which it must be said were lost. And he is just 24 years old.
“I am pleased with how things have been going,” he said this week, with a hint of understatement.
“I’ve been working hard, but I still have to keep working hard and still look to keep on improving. I want to get my hands on the ball more and come into the line more. But, overall, I’m pretty pleased with how the kicking has been going. I need to keep working on that and keep that going.
“The last two games [against France and Italy] have been pretty tight games, with not much attack. It has been low-risk rugby, playing more territory and putting pressure on the opposition to attack.
“Hopefully, we can get plenty of ball out wide and show a bit more of our attacking game. We all want to get the ball in our hands and we want to score tries – there is no better feeling than that.”
Ever since he first broke into the Wales team, barring injuries, Halfpenny has been a difficult guy to shift, and he sees similarities in the way his opposite number Stuart Hogg has made the Scotland 15 jersey his own. Both are quick livewire attackers who excite crowds because their first instinct is to seek space and their second is to seek space.
“Hogg made his debut against us last year,” recalled Halfpenny, “and he came on and made a bit of an impact there. He looks a good player. He attacks the ball well and he’s having a good tournament. If you give him space, he can take it. We can’t allow them any room to build up momentum.”
The full-backs also share a courage in defence that has cost both some hard knocks, Halfpenny spending the night in hospital in putting his body on the line, in vain, to stem Australia’s late comeback at the Millennium Stadium in November.
Halfpenny insisted: “I love the challenge – it is something I’ve always relished since I was a kid. I’ve always been the smallest in the team. Everyone else has always been bigger than me, and yet I’ve always enjoyed the physical side of the game; the tackling“I see it as a challenge. They [opponents] are probably thinking ‘I am bigger than you, I am going to run over the top of you’. But I am looking at them and thinking ‘no chance – you are not passing me’.
“Shaun Edwards [Wales defence coach] has brought that part of my game on a hell of a lot and it’s something I am looking to keep going, but my mum has always got her face behind her hands. She can’t watch at all.”
Having turned around a run of eight defeats from last summer to the start of this year’s Six Nations, Wales head to Murrayfield believing that they are back in the championship and one win away from a title decider with England back in Cardiff. Halfpenny is wary of under-estimating Scotland, but he believes the Welsh are now on a roll and have the game and confidence to end Scotland’s revival.
There is talk in Wales of how the team may need tries to pip England on points difference, but again Halfpenny has learned enough in 42 caps to know that winning a Six Nations Test is a challenge in itself.
“We’ve found a way to win, like we did in the 2011 World Cup and the last Six Nations,” he added. “The games against Australia last summer were so frustrating – we lost a couple of games late on against them – and the autumn series this season was poor. We wanted to come into the Six Nations and bounce back from that. We wanted to do it for ourselves and for the country.
“The fact that we’ve won a couple of games, confidence and momentum comes through that, so, yeah, the spirits are up.
“We are obviously mindful of that [need for good points difference], but the most important thing is to focus on winning firstly. That’s the ultimate goal.
“We have got a young team here and boys who have got huge amounts of talent and we are all excited to play. We are still growing as a team, still learning. We’ve come through a tough spot, where this young team has learned a hell of a lot from it, and now we are just looking to continue to work hard and keep on improving and hopefully keep the winning ways going.
“But we want to play and play well, and, depending on the weather, hopefully we will get the chance to play some good rugby at Murrayfield and win well.”