European Champions Cup: Leigh Halfpenny savours dream come true
Wales star kicks Toulon into an all-French final against Clermont Auvergne after 25-20 extra-time win over Leinster
Leigh Halfpenny admitted it was a dream come true after he kicked 20 points at the Stade Velodrome to guide Toulon to a third successive European final.
In his first season with the club following his move from Cardiff Blues, the Wales full-back kicked six penalties and a conversion as the defending back-to-back champions Toulon secured a 25-20 win in extra time.
You work hard day in, day out to be involved in the big matches, and the success and ambition of Toulon, I felt that I wanted to be a part of that.
Toulon’s Leigh Halfpenny on reaching the Champions Cup final
Leinster centre Ian Madidan and Halfpenny each landed four out of five penalties on goal during the regulation 80 minutes, while Delon Armitage missed a long-range effort with the final kick after Gopperth and Rob Kearney peppered the Toulon posts with speculative drop-goal efforts.
But Bernard Laporte’s men had just enough left in the tank, despite losing lock Ali Williams to the sin bin in extra time, to set up a date with Top 14 rivals Clermont Auvergne at Twickenham on Saturday 2 May, a repeat of the 2013 final in Dublin.
Halfpenny, who scored a try to help the Blues defeat Toulon 28-21 to lift the 2010 Amlin Challenge Cup at the Velodrome, revealed it was a childhood dream to play in a major European matches.
“As a professional rugby player, something like this is what you grow up dreaming of,” Halfpenny said.
“You work hard day in, day out to be involved in the big matches and, the success and ambition of Toulon, I felt that I wanted to be a part of that.
“I was fortunate to be given the opportunity, and it was a challenge I felt that I needed.
“To be rubbing shoulders with these guys, I can only feel it is helping my game.
“The intensity and physicality today was right up there with an international match.
“It was touch and go throughout and games sometimes are decided by very small margins.
“You could not switch off for one second and credit to the boys – the character they showed was immense.”
While the big-spending French club went into the match as overwhelming favourites, Leinster pushed Toulon all the way with one of their best performances of an otherwise disappointing season, taking a 9-6 lead into the break through Madigan’s goal kicking.
With Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt watching on, Matt O’Connor’s men battled bravely against a fierce Toulon defence, but Madigan will want to forget his trip to the south of France quickly after his looping pass wide found the hands of South African speedster Bryan Habana, who cruised away to score the game’s first try just second after Halfpenny had landed the second of his two penalties in extra time.
A late Sean O’Brien try was barely more than consolation for the three times champions with Toulon now looking to make history by becoming the first club to the European cup for a third successive time.
And Halfpenny admitted he did think back to that famous Blues semi-final defeat before Bryan Habana intercepted a poor long pass from Madigan to break away for the first try of the match.
“I did think of that and I thought ‘here we go again’,” Halfpenny added.
“But Bryan read that pass superbly and luckily we didn’t have to go to a penalty shoot-out this time.”
With Clermont Auvergne to come in the final, it means Halfpenny or his Wales backline colleague Jonathan Davies will join an elite list of Welshman to win the European cup.
Wales and British and Irish Lions veteran Gethin Jenkins, now at Cardiff Blues, was the last to win it during his time with Toulon in 2013.
Former Wales full-back Gareth Thomas (Toulouse, 2005) and Wales assistant coach Rob Howley (Wasps, 2004) are also among the nine Welshmen to have won Europe’s premier club competition, with Howley’s success coming under the leadership of Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards.
Welsh European Cup winners:
2013 Gethin Jenkins (Toulon)
2005 Gareth Thomas (Toulouse)
2004 Rob Howley (Wasps)
2000 Andy Newman and Allan Bateman (Northampton)
1998 Ieuan Evans, Nathan Thomas and Richard Webster (Bath)
1997 Tony Rees (Brive)