Wales give Leigh Halfpenny contract ultimatum
Fullback has until end of the month to decide whether to stay at Toulon or return to Cardiff
Wales have given Leigh Halfpenny until the end of the month to decide whether to stay at Toulon or return to Cardiff Blues on a dual contract. Photograph: Afp/Geoff Caddick
Wales want the Lions full-back Leigh Halfpenny to decide by the end of the month whether to accept a national dual contract and return to Cardiff Blues next summer or remain at Toulon, where he has spent the last three years.
The Welsh Rugby Union group chief executive, Martyn Phillips, revealed the governing body had made its maximum offer to Halfpenny, who has been offered a reported £700,000 a year by Toulon. If the 28-year old remains in France, he would join the group of Welsh exiles who are classified as wild card players, with only four able to be named in the national squad from next season, a number that will halve in the year before the 2019 World Cup.
“Leigh is a match-winner and as an ambassador for rugby he is a hell of a nice guy,” Phillips said. “You would want him in your mix, not at a distance. When I go around clubs and ask little kids who their favourite player is, loads of them chirp up with his name. Leigh is someone we think a lot of and we have made him the best offer we possibly can.
“We all hope he comes back but he is his own man. I am sure there is a bit of head and heart for him to go through and I will respect his decision. It is difficult for him and if he does not come back, I would understand that. The clock is ticking and there is a point at which Toulon will need certainty. We can pick him anyway but I am sure Leigh knows he has to make a call on it in the next couple of weeks.”
Phillips said he did not expect the wild card policy to be reviewed, even though George North, Jamie Roberts and Taulupe Faletau could be joined in the category, which applies to players who have rejected the chance to join one of the four Welsh regions to play in England or France, in the coming seasons by Halfpenny, Ross Moriarty and Tomas Francis.
“There was a lot of deliberation to get to the policy in the first place and I would rather see it out now,” Phillips said. “There are so many other things we are trying to do and it could confuse things if we blink on it now. There is a potentially better way but what will make Wales successful and sustainable is not the selection policy. There are bigger things we need to wrestle with.”
One is the future of the regions, whose playing budgets are considerably below rivals in England, France and Ireland. Newport Gwent Dragons are seeking private financial backing and a lack of progress has cast uncertainty over their future. The Cardiff Blues chairman, Peter Thomas, this week said he felt the regions were heading for a car crash.
“The Dragons are in a difficult spot,” Phillips said. “They are looking for new investment, which is always a tough place to be. We are working very closely together but the nearer next season comes, the more urgent it is. I am meeting with them again next week and part of my job is to help them become a well-run, successful professional team.”
Asked whether the WRU would consider taking over the region, he replied: “You could not say no. There are 73 clubs in Gwent, a region with a rich history that has always produced amazing players. There is no way I could not have a professional club in Gwent without knowing I had done everything I could. If it came to it, we would look at it and ask if we could afford it.
“Going forward, I think the regions will have to have a combination of union funding and private investment. Given some of the money that has been spent in England and France, it would be difficult for professional clubs to be competitive without both those investment streams. It is not all about the money: you need a vision and an identity.”
Phillips said he had no regrets about allowing Wales’s head coach, Warren Gatland, to take a year’s sabbatical to plan for this year’s Lions tour to New Zealand or about the interim head coach, Robert Howley, joining him on the trip instead of leading Wales on their tour of the South Seas and fixtures against Samoa and Tonga, the latter likely to be played in Auckland.
“They will learn more as coaches on the Lions tour rather than be on diminishing returns in the South Seas,” Phillips said. “It is unlikely that they will not learn a bunch of stuff and we have relatively few opportunities to grow these guys.”