LONDON (Reuters) - It is a fair bet that if Wales are to progress from a group containing England and Australia, let alone hope to emulate their run to the semi-finals in 2011, Leigh Halfpenny will have to convert every penalty that comes his way.
The fullback heads into this World Cup in his prime and, at 27, is arguably the most deadly and dependable goalkicker in the international game.
He is an automatic first choice, not only for Wales but the British and Irish Lions with whom he played a starring role in the success against Australia two years ago.
Halfpenny’s accuracy and range is a major advantage to Warren Gatland’s Wales who must do battle with hosts England and the resurgent Wallabies in Pool A.
With two from those three able to qualify for the knockout stages, every point from Halfpenny’s boot could be vital for the Welsh.
Recent performances by Australia combined with England’s home advantage have shunted Wales to outsider status but Halfpenny is expecting not only to get out of the group but to go all the way and improve on their narrow semi-final defeat by France four years.
“The expectation we put on ourselves is going that one step further,” he said.
“Not to have won that game and gone into the final after all the hard work that had gone before was a huge disappointment.”
Part of the feared Wales backline that won back-to-back Six Nations titles in 2012 and 2013, Halfpenny’s kicking prowess mean opposing sides commit penalties in their own half at their peril
A fearless tackler -- some would say too fearless -- and a safe pair of hands under a high ball, Halfpenny is often the spark for Welsh counter-attacks.
But the player who became a European champion with his club side Toulon last season is also susceptible to injury.
He missed last summer’s tour of South Africa after being ruled out for four months following a shoulder injury.
The start of his Toulon career was delayed by a persistent groin problem and a nasty concussion sustained in March against Italy in the Six Nations prompted some to question his tackling approach.
Former Wales captain Gareth Thomas said Halfpenny puts his head in the wrong place and is “getting injured from a bad technique”.
“There’s cause for concern there, just for one for his personal welfare, but also potentially missing tackles because he’s putting his head in the wrong place all the time. I think maybe he’s favouring one shoulder over another,” Thomas said.
Wales fans want and need Halfpenny to stay fit and healthy throughout the tournament and as long as he is on the pitch, they will be in the game.
Editing by Mitch Phillips