"I thought that I was dead, basically, in South Africa," he says quietly in the crisp pronunciation of his native Durban. He was referring to his rugby career and to the wonderful but ultimately transitory, fleeting sense of achievement that came with being capped for the Springboks six years ago. Rugby is such an important sport in South Africa and there is such a vast choice of excellent rugby players vying for the same coveted places on the national squad that it becomes almost impossible to make a lasting impression.
"As much as you think you will stay alive on the rugby scene, you kind of die very quickly when you are finished," he explains. "Because someone else comes in. Someone flashy. Someone great. It doesn't matter. Someone else comes in. People move on."
When we met in an opulent hotel bar outside Cork city, Halstead was full of apologies at being slightly late. A Munster team meeting went on longer than anticipated, the drive down from Limerick was painfully slow and it was one of those drizzly, dark-bright Irish afternoons when traffic crawls and just being outside is a hassle. Business meetings were merging with early evening cocktails when Halstead walked in. Wearing a Munster training shirt and a baseball cap slung low over his blue eyes, he looked so beaten up by the day that it seemed heartless not to inquire if he fancied a pint.
"Jeez, I actually do," he grinned but held up a bottle of water he was carrying. "Better stick to this, though," he said, sinking back into the boon of a leather armchair and sighing deeply. He still bears the faint lustre of someone who grew up in a glorious climate and casting a baleful look through the windows at the drizzle he admits that he has found the bleakness of the Irish winter something of a marvel. But he is in good spirits. Like most of the provincial professionals, waiting in the wings during the Six Nations tournament has been a trial in its own right. Halstead would pound weights with Christian Cullen, share car trips with Anthony Foley and eat lunch with the other guys but deep down, they were all impatient. Munster's international boys breezed back into training this week and immediately, there was a greater sense of urgency about the dressing room. It felt like all the hanging around was over.
"That is a difficult time for me, when the internationals are away, man. All the big guns are gone. And Munster has a great squad but it feels like you are kind of rebuilding the team. Then sitting out weeks without games, it is tough. This thing of taking a break in the middle of the season and then having to perform straight off, I am still battling with that in my mind. You have to stay in shape. The internationals are coming back super fit so you don't want to be the weak link in the side. The routine was exactly the same but it was emptier. Those guys have big personalities, they run the show."
The rugby fan in him enjoyed watching his team-mates representing Ireland, although he was unable to secure tickets for either of the matches in Croke Park. He groans when he reviews the pathos of the closing day of the Six Nations and the questionable try that gave France the championship.
"But then I look back at the Irish game against Italy where they kind of screwed up. Okay, they went for the points and it might have worked. But this may not be the worst result in the long term because it means that Ireland have that resentment now and that may help to push them on in the World Cup. And the thing is that the whole vibe about Irish rugby is very positive right now. The international team is kicking ass. And it is a great laugh. I tell all the boys they have to enjoy this now. What is there not to be happy about?"
When Halstead signed for Munster prior to last season, he knew nothing other than he was joining a reputable ball club. He laughs when he pictures himself standing shell shocked in the arrivals hall of Cork airport one night, "kind of a hovel then because they were carrying out alterations" and Gerry Holland there to greet him. It was dark and raining.
"Just thought: Oh dear. But I was ready for anything. I came here with an open mind." He was immediately encouraged by the professionalism and the easy confidence of his team-mates, a welcome relief from the stressful Natal Sharks set-up from which he had escaped. But he grins as he confesses that he knew absolutely nothing about the Munster mystique and regarded the tales of bad luck and heartbreak that preceded his arrival with cool South African realism.
"All the boys had the stories about their near misses and the little hand knock-on in the ruck and all that. I told them it was sour grapes," he says mischievously.
"They lost a couple of finals and it was just moaning. Everyone moans when they come second. Course, I can say that now because we won the thing last year."
It was generally noted that Halstead arrived for Munster's perfect season - and that the Natal centre's piercing, smashing running game gave the Reds' three-quarters line a dimension of power and menace that was badly needed. Scoring a try in the final against Biarritz was the icing on a fabulous first season and given the dejection and tribulations many Munster veterans had to endure to reach that afternoon of glory, it might have seemed that it all came too easy to the Durban boy.
But that afternoon in Cardiff was something of a personal vindication for Halstead. His view of rugby was, he concedes, beginning to "sour" when Munster made inquiries about his availability. Halstead has battled all his life, quitting rugby at just 16 when it seemed as if a weak knee could not support his aggressive, strike-out style. In the mid-1990s, his elder brother Craig was considered Springboks material, turning in impressive performance for the city side Collegians. Out of curiosity more than anything, Trevor decided to train with this brother's club. A provincial game with the Collegians U-21 side was the summit of his ambitions. He was duly selected and within four years, he was a standard fixture on the Natal Sharks first 15 and was called into the national team. When you consider Halstead's starting position, as an unheralded 20-year-old with just schools honours with Kearsney boarding school behind him, it was a stunning ascendancy. He was called into the Springboks side during a turbulent period. South Africa fell short on his debut night in Paris and then the team went to Twickenham and took a drubbing. He played six times and then snapped his anterior cruciate ligament. Between jigs and reels, he was out for a year and although he rediscovered what he felt was his best form, Jake White was then national coach and the door was closed.
To compound matters, Natal were enduring a miserable period. The easier option would have been to quit and go into the family engineering business but he was too stubborn. Besides, his elder brother had been forced to quit in 1997, just pulling up at training one day after a series of operations left his left leg in constant pain. He retired on the spot and maybe Trevor carried some of his ambitions with him.
"I loved the life. I loved being a rugby player. I love the feeling of being on the field, the thrill of being out there and scoring. In South Africa, it is huge. There is the thrill of being recognised out on the street or never having to stand in queues because someone up top knows you. It was that thing of feeling special and of playing at the highest level. My aim was to get back playing with South Africa. I suppose I wish I had the head then that I do now. Because it was no fairytale."
By signing for Munster, he knew he was drawing the line on his international career. But the way last season panned out, with the great emotional tide following Munster's journey to Cardiff and then those ecstatic scenes after a gripping victory over Biarritz, his new club provided him with the runaway highlight of his sporting life.
Halstead values the European Cup triumph over anything. And it was only in the days afterwards, when he studied the deep afterglow of satisfaction in the local boys and saw the joy in the people that he fully understood "the Munster thing."
He was, after all, the new boy, with no mental scars and no inherent feel for the province. The entire season was dreamlike. As he recalls, he only trained four days in the rain and the weather was gorgeous. "I used to wonder why the Irish were always complaining about the weather."
This year, he has been stunned by the insistence of the rainfall, by the darkness and at training, he feels like part of the furniture. There was a tough game in Ravenhill last night and next Friday evening in Llanelli will define Munster's season. It is a treacherous quarter-final for the champions and it is, perhaps, accompanied by a general complacent expectation that Munster will dog it through because that is what Munster do.
"Munster are the same team but we are different too," he says carefully. "We are still humble enough to know we have to do the hard work. We just reached a goal in Cardiff and then went back to where we were before. Our goal is the final. Any loss will be a disappointment. Had we lost last year, the pressure now would be immense. But that is gone. So that was a relief. But now comes the expectation to perform and reach the final. And it is very easy to fall short."
Although Halstead talks in those broad Natal tones, he sounds like a Munster man. He nods solemnly when you suggest that however temporary his sporting achievements at home might have felt, being on the Munster winning team means being part of sporting immortality in this corner of the world. "I'm starting to gather that," he says.
And it also means he can fly home with pride whenever this adventure is over. His family will be glued to the television screen back home and his story with Munster has made the back pages in Durban. The Halstead kid hadn't disappeared off the face of the earth after all. "Maybe someone will actually come up and say well played, ya know," he laughs. "Coming to Munster, it was just like coming back into the light."
(Article reproduced courtesy Irish Times).