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2013 British & Irish Lions
Kearney: Halfpenny is leading the way at fullback
ESPN Staff
March 13, 2013
Wales' Leigh Halfpenny enjoys the moment, France v Wales, Six Nations, Stade de France, Paris, France, February 9, 2013
Leigh Halfpenny has been one of the standout players in this season's Six Nations © PA Photos
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Players/Officials: Leigh Halfpenny | Rob Kearney
Tournaments/Tours: Six Nations
Teams: Ireland | Wales

Ireland fullback Rob Kearney has conceded that his Wales counterpart Leigh Halfpenny is winning the race to be the British & Irish Lions No.15 come the summer.

Both Kearney and Halfpenny look set to tour to Australia but following the Welshman's performances in the Six Nations, which have put him in the frame to be one of the players of the tournament, he seems to be the leading contender to start for the Lions at fullback.

Halfpenny has proved to be deadly with the boot and also picked up Man of the Match awards for his performances against France and Italy. The pair both toured with the Lions in 2009 but it was the Irishman who featured in the Tests with Kearney playing in all three.

But come 2013, events have conspired against the 2012 European player of the year, who has been playing in a team decimated by injury against opposition that have worked out it is best to keep the ball out of his hands.

"Leigh's goalkicking alone has made him the standout full-back of the Six Nations. Wales have won a huge amount of games with his kicking skills," Kearney said. "For me it's quite frustrating because receiving kicks was always a great way to get into games, get some ball and display my strengths.

"That's something I've definitely struggled with throughout this campaign. It shows a little bit as well in terms of my own touches. It's a case of trying to not get too frustrated by it and trying to find other ways to get into the game, although that hasn't been helped by the conditions we've been playing in.

"Last weekend against France was only my seventh start this season because of injury. I always think it's around six, seven or eight games that you start getting back into the run of things."

There are few more reliable full-backs than Kearney, whose displays in challenging weather conditions against England and France were exemplary, even if he was inevitably muted in attack. Saturday's clash with Italy presents a final chance to impress Warren Gatland on the international stage, but the 26-year-old believes the Kiwi will look beyond the Six Nations to inform his opinion.

"Of course it crosses your mind that this weekend is the last major stage to impress Lions selectors, but selection will have been going on throughout the last year," he said. "Although a huge amount of emphasis has been put on the Six Nations, it's not the be-all and end-all.

"It's not the only shop window to stake your claim. It's important to recognise that when the team does well, individuals do well. Once you start trying to play as individuals, that's when the team suffers. Ultimately then the player will suffer."

British & Irish Lions fullback Rob Kearney looks devestated after his side lost in injury-time to a Morne Steyn penalty, South Africa v British & Irish Lions, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria, South Africa, June 27, 2009
Rob Kearney reflects on the Lions' 2009 series defeat © Getty Images
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Ireland will go into the final weekend of Six Nations action looking to avoid the wooden spoon while if they win against Italy, then they could finish third in the tournament. "My message to the team going to Rome is 'win'. There's a big difference between finishing third and finishing sixth. That's a big jump there," Kearney said. "There are a lot of guys in the team who haven't really experienced what winning for their country feels like.

"Winning Six Nations games outweighs winning big Heineken Cup matches for your province enormously. We're looking to rebuild, get back on track and start competing for silverware again.

"Where we finish this year will have a huge bearing on that. It's about finishing on a high, finishing with a win and getting this team back on track. To an extent it's unfair to judge the performance of the team and management on this Six Nations.

"But when you look at the likes of the Scotland game when players just didn't finish things off, we need to be held accountable for that. Against France we produced an improved performance and played quite well, but injuries cost us a little bit at the end and that's maybe the time to allow us more leeway in terms of analysis. But we should have beaten Scotland and didn't, so that's a day when we should have been judged more harshly."

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