There was not a dry eye in the house when the 53,271 fans packed into the Principality Stadium rose as one in the 65th minute to salute one of Welsh rugby’s all-time greats when Leigh Halfpenny left the international stage for the final time.
After 801 points for his country, 101 caps and 15 years in red, the player Warren Gatland rated as the best defensive full-back in the world in his prime, kicked his fifth-successive conversion. Wales added two more tries after his departure as they finished with a flourish to end their topsy-turvy year with a 49-26 triumph.
“We thought about keeping Leigh on for the full 80 minutes and then allowing him to take the applause at the end, but we decided it would be nicer for him if he came off on his own. It was a very special moment,” said Gatland.
It was also poignant that as he turned to leave the field it was the Barbarians captain Alun Wyn Jones who was the first to shake his hand. Two giants of modern-day rugby in Wales and the UK sharing a moment.
After that, Halfpenny went up to the man who worked with him from the age of 16 to help turn him into one of the deadliest of goalkickers, Neil Jenkins. Their final embrace was another tear-jerker for the fans.
Jones, the world’s most capped international player with 158 for Wales and a further 12 for the British & Irish Lions, helped himself to a second-half try and scooped the man-of-the-match award on his final appearance at a venue he has graced for the past 18 years.
‘It’s time to build a new generation’
“I want to thank the crowd. I have been coming here for 18 years and people have spent their hard-earned cash to come out and support us through good times and bad,” said Jones.
“The man-of-the-match award was a bit of tokenism but I will gratefully take it. For me it was all about being with Leigh Halfpenny and Justin Tipuric, as well as Dan Biggar, who isn’t here today.
“It’s a bit sad, but my kids aren’t going to stop growing and neither is Welsh rugby. It’s time to build a new generation.”
Gatland, who confirmed he will be around for a further four years at the end of last month’s World Cup in France, is already casting his mind forward and liked what he saw from his young side. They scored three tries in the first half, a further four in the second and did not flinch when Jones stretched out an arm to score his try and cut the gap to two points at 21-19 with half-an-hour to play.
“Given the age profile of the team I was pleased. It’s always good to score 49 points in a game, although we left a few tries out there in the first half,” said Gatland.
“I’m pleased with where we are, I’m pleased with this group of players and I’m pleased with the leadership of Jac Morgan. The Six Nations is going to be a big challenge for us, but if we keep working and keep believing then we are capable of winning matches, as we showed at the World Cup.
Halfpenny converted the first half tries from Dewi Lake, Tom Rogers and Sam Costelow to make it 21-5 at the break. Then he added the extras to tries from back row duo Taine Plumtree and Aaron Wainwright.
That made it 28-19 before he left, Fijian scrum-half Simione Kuruvoli having scored twice and Jones once. Nicolas Sanchez converted two of them before Ben Donaldson improved a Tom Hooper try.
Wales finished with a flourish with a brace off tries from replacement scrum half Kieran hardy, both converted by Cai Evans.