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Page last updated at 07:21 GMT, Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Halfpenny shocked by rugby rise

SIX NATIONS - FRANCE v WALES
Venue: Stade de France Date: Friday, 27 February Kick-off: 2000 GMT
Coverage: Live coverage on BBC Two and online, full commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio Wales and online, live text commentary and score updates on BBC Sport website


Leigh Halfpenny
Leigh Halfpenny was released by the Ospreys before joining the Blues

Young Welsh wing Leigh Halfpenny concedes his rise to international-class rugby star has surprised him.

The 20-year-old Blues player has been one of the Six Nations' best performers in his first Championship scoring tries in Wales' first two games.

But his ambition was more modest. "My aims for the season was playing for Cardiff in Principality Premiership," Halfpenny told BBC Sport.

"And maybe a game for the Blues when the boys are on Six Nations duty."

Halfpenny has been transformed from an unknown to an established Welsh international in his first professional season.

The Swansea-born player revealed he thought his rugby career "was over" when he was released by his home region the Ospreys in 2007.

But a starring role in the Under-19s World Cup for Wales earned him a deal with the Blues.

Halfpenny has scored eight tries for the Blues this season - including four in Europe - and the would-be dentist has excelled when cutting his teeth in international rugby.

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Halfpenny, who made his debut against South Africa in November, has scored four tries in his first five Wales caps.

Now he will spearhead the Wales attack as Warren Gatland's men aim to beat France in Paris and maintain their charge for back-to-back Grand Slam crowns.

But he admitted: "I can't believe what has happened to me in the space of the last six months since.

"Playing for the Blues and now all this, it's all a bit of a dream - my hard work and dedication to rugby seems to paying off so far."

Halfpenny's impact on international rugby has earned huge plaudits and many pundits believe the youngster could be a surprise call for the Lions tour to world champions South Africa.

"To be thinking about South Africa would be getting a bit too ahead of myself," said Halfpenny.

Leigh Halfpenny kicks at goal
Halfpenny has given an insight into goal-kicking decisions

"I must focus on the remaining Six Nations games and should Wales do well they will get their Lions reward.

"But whether it's on Wales' summer tour to North America or the Lions trip to South Africa, I'll be pleased wherever I go.

"I have enjoyed a great learning experience; my first game against South Africa I was a little overawed by the whole occasion inside a packed Millennium Stadium.

"But I soon realised I had a game to get on with - and I did enjoy my try against England and contributing to the victory as I've never beaten England before."

Halfpenny has capitalised on injuries to rival wings Shane Williams and Mark Jones to earn a Wales call - and he has certainly taken his chance.

"You never wish injuries on players," said Halfpenny. "But it happens and when it does and you are given a chance, you must take it. I have and I'm happy it has all worked out."

And he has given an insight into penalty kicking decisions: "Whenever Stephen Jones thinks he's not in range, he'll ask me if I want a go. If I think I can kick it, I will."


Wales team to face France at the Stade de France on Friday: Lee Byrne; Leigh Halfpenny, Tom Shanklin, Jamie Roberts, Shane Williams; Stephen Jones, Michael Phillips; Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees, Adam Jones, Ian Gough, Alun Wyn Jones, Ryan Jones (capt), Martyn Williams, Andy Powell.
Replacements: Huw Bennett, John Yapp, Luke Charteris, Dafydd Jones, Dwayne Peel, James Hook, Gavin Henson.

Referee: Mark Lawrence (South Africa)



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