Former Ulsterman Christian Lealiifano handed dream Wallabies return

Peter White
08 July 2019

Share this article

Former Ulster fly-half Christian Lealiifano has completed a dream return to rugby’s greatest stage, just three years after being diagnosed with leukaemia.

The 31-year-old has been named in Michael Cheika’s 34-man squad for Australia’s Rugby Championship opener against South Africa in Johannesburg on July 20, having last played for the Wallabies in June 2016.

The inclusion of Lealiifano represents an incredible comeback for the Brumbies skipper, who joined the Ulstermen on a five-month loan deal in August 2017, just six months after entering remission.

Having retuned to the fold at the Canberra-based side at the end of their 2017 Super Rugby campaign, a spell in Northern Ireland presented the perfect opportunity to get back to his best.

Lealiifano – who was born in Auckland but moved to Melbourne aged seven – was a huge hit at Kingspan after being brought in by then-director of rugby Les Kiss as a replacement for Paddy Jackson.

He scored 47 points in 17 games for the province, including one try and four penalties to help Ulster to a fourth-place finish in the Guinness Pro14 Conference B.

Speaking of his time in Belfast on his return to Australia, he said: “It’s been an amazing experience.

“The plan was to head back a bit refreshed with some good rugby under my belt.

“I didn’t think I’d play to the level I have – I feel in a really good space.

“I probably didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much as I have either and to be able to tick those boxes off in terms of my health first and foremost, and then to get fit and strong in rugby has been an absolute bonus.

“I got the opportunity to bring my family over here and that was probably the best decision we’ve made in our short time as a family.

“The Ulster people and the team have been absolutely incredible – they welcomed me here and made me feel at home.”

After making his Wallabies bow by starting all three Tests in the 2013 British and Irish Lions series, Lealiifano became an Australia regular until being omitted from Cheika’s 2015 World Cup squad.

He quickly forced his way back into the former Leinster coach’s plans and had looked like cementing his spot in the squad for years to come – until his diagnosis put an enforced halt on his career.

Since heading back down under in early 2018 after his spell at Ulster, Lealiifano has continued his path to former glories, culminating in a shot at claiming his 20th international appearance later this month.

Lealiifano tallied 113 points for Brumbies in 18 Super Rugby games in 2019 as the two-time champions eventually went down 39-7 to Jaguares in the semi-finals.

Despite that, Cheika admitted he couldn’t ignore his scintillating performances on the domestic stage when selecting his squad for the clash against the Springboks.

He said: “I’m not the expert to speak on what Christian has been through – only he knows that and his family.

“What you can’t deny is his form in Super Rugby at the end of the day.

“If you take out all the other things he’s achieved, he’s been playing good in Super Rugby and deserves to be there.”

Despite it being likely he will have to settle for a spot as an understudy to stalwart Bernard Foley in the Wallabies setup, Lealiifano will be desperate for a chance to establish himself in Cheika’s plans ahead of this Autumn’s World Cup.

Having seemingly surpassed the omitted Quade Cooper in the international ranks, he will be hopeful of making the final 31-man squad before leaving Brumbies to play in Japan next season.

Share this article