By Harri Morgan
After his prolonged lay-off, the rugby masses will breathe a sigh of relief when Leigh Halfpenny returns to business this afternoon.
He is just one of the blokes that exudes the values of which followers of the sport readily boast.
He will do so in the Scarlet of his region on a Sunday, rather than the red of his nation on Saturday evening. The correct decision. The talk of him returning straight into the main mix, the Six Nations cauldron, seemed devoid of logic.
Not to undermine the Pro 14, or the Cheetahs, but today’s fixture at Parc Y Scarlets is a comparatively pressure off fixture, when pinned against, well, any Six Nations fixture.
If things don’t go to plan, and Halfpenny isn’t right, he needs to be in a place where he can make a decision governed by sense, not emotion.
That place isn’t a humdinger between Wales and England. Then, of course, you have to draw into question his readiness to both compete and add value at Test intensity.
Finally, there is a pure rugby question. Is he the best man for the job as custodian in the Welsh side? Absence can make the heart grow fonder but we must not forget that there has been a significant voice of dissent at Warren Gatland’s repeat selection of the gunning goal-kicker in preference to the attacking prowess of the marauding Saracen, Liam Williams – a deserving man of the match against England yesterday.
One would suspect that in a scenario where both are fit, Warren Gatland would probably still give the nod to his man in the scrum helmet with Williams competing for a berth as a wingman.
Today’s comeback represents a perfect opportunity for the current Scarlet to prove he is ready to challenge a former one for the number 15 jersey as we head towards the World Cup.
Halfpenny will play his first game since November for the Scarlets in what Wayne Pivac has described a ‘must win’ game against the Toyota Cheetahs.
The 30-year-old was tackled late by Samu Kerevi during Wales’ win over the Wallabies last November and has been out of action for 106 days with concussion.
But he will finally make his comeback after being released from the Wales camp with the Scarlets desperate to bounce back from last Saturday’s disappointing defeat against Benetton.
The Scarlets are five points off the Guinness Pro 14 play-off places in Conference B with six games left to play.
“This is a must win game,” said head coach Pivac. “It’s very important from a Scarlets and a Wales point of view that we are playing in the Champions Cup next season. I think we have to beat the Cheetahs and if we don’t it means other results have to go our way.
“That would build a lot of pressure on us. For us it’s a home game and we’ve got a proud record at home so we want that to continue.
“I’m pretty sure the boys will be up for the game and fully motivated because a lot of them were disappointed with their individual performances against Benetton.”
The Scarlets have also been boosted by the availability of Wales squad members Wyn Jones, Ryan Elias and Jake Ball who will captain the side.
But Pivac is wary of a Cheetahs side who are fighting for a play-off place in Conference A.
“The Cheetahs kick the ball the least so they like to play, they have some genuine speed, they score a lot of points and they concede a lot of points,” said Pivac.
“We have to make sure we win those physical exchanges when we have ball in hand so we can unleash our backs who we believe are pretty potent.”