Cunningham in no doubt Leali'ifano will kick on at Ulster
Ulster Operations Director Bryn Cunningham was thrilled to announce yesterday that the province had finally landed their top fly-half target with Christian Leali'ifano due to arrive in the province in the coming days.
In news revealed by the Belfast Telegraph earlier this month, the Australian international, who only this summer made a return to top-level rugby having overcome leukaemia, has signed up until the end of January, the rubber stamp coming after the ironing out of insurance details.
With Ulster at present having to prepare for the new season minus Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding - both men will appear in court tomorrow charged with rape, which they strenuously deny - the need for an experienced operator to fill the No.10 jersey became glaringly obvious.
Cunningham revealed that, with the process of recruitment playing out over several months, it was decided that a short-term deal for Leali'ifano would be more beneficial than a season-long pact with a lesser player.
"We're really delighted," said the former full-back who was a part of Ulster's European Cup-winning squad in 1999. "The process started some months ago because we weren't exactly sure what would happen.
"We had to start that process very early and get a list of players together. It was pretty clear from an early stage that Christian was the out and out front-runner.
"When we put the list together there were variables with all the players. With Christian, he was still contracted to the Brumbies for another season, so there was a lot of negotiation involved with him, his agent and the Brumbies.
"We had to weigh up whether a five-month contract, taking us up to the end of January, was better for us than a year-long one with a lesser standard of player.
"We felt that because Christian was such a quality player, that was more important to us.
"It's a critical time of the year, getting off to a good start and then that Christmas period when there are some big European games and the big derbies.
"Christian has huge experience both internationally and at club level. He's a very talented individual but is hugely thought of as well in terms of personality."
Ulster, who are doing some of their training at their old base of Newforge this week rather than Kingspan Stadium thanks to the Women's World Cup, will play Northampton Saints in a friendly at Franklin's Gardens on Friday night as the final prep for a Guinness PRO14 campaign that begins on September 1 against new foes the Toyota Cheetahs.
And with that curtain raiser at Kingspan Stadium sure to be of extra interest to neutrals as it represents the South African side's first foray into Northern Hemisphere rugby, home supporters can look forward to the possibility of seeing their new recruit in action for the first time.
"We hope to have him on board within a week or two," Cunningham added. "We hope to see him (in the Cheetahs game). We're talking about that being a week and a half away, so it's a big ask. The main thing will be to get him up to speed with the calls.
"With the ability and leadership he has, I've no doubt he can get up to speed pretty quickly."
Leali'ifano, who according to statistics authority Opta had the highest tackle success rate of any out-half in Super Rugby during 2016, is keen to get minutes under his belt after missing almost all of last season thanks to his cancer diagnosis, and was quick to praise his club for giving the green light to his European sojourn.
"I'd like to thank the Brumbies for allowing me to do this stint abroad," he said. "I'm really excited to be joining up with Ulster Rugby and I'm looking forward to getting out there in front of the supporters at Kingspan Stadium.
"I can't wait to experience the rugby and the culture in Belfast.
"Having missed almost an entire season while recovering, I feel that it's important that I get some minutes playing competitive rugby ahead of the 2018 Super Rugby season and Ulster have provided a great environment for me to do that.
"They are a well-respected club and are genuine challengers for the PRO14 title. I have heard good things about the set-up there and am looking forward to working with the Ulster coaching team and squad.
"With this opportunity, I feel I can come back to the Brumbies in great shape ahead of the build-up to the new Super Rugby season. Dan (McKellar, head coach)and the Brumbies staff have been very supportive of this idea and I am excited by the challenges that lay ahead."
His new Director of Rugby Les Kiss was equally effusive, no doubt relieved to have the player in before the start of arguably the most crucial campaign of his now three-season tenure.
"This is a massive boost for us as we approach the start of the season," he said of signing his fellow Australian. "It was paramount that we signed an experienced player to give us another option at fly-half and this is a fantastic solution for us.
"Christian has the playing talent, the leadership ability and the personality to make a big impact here. He has overcome significant challenges in his career and that is testament to his bravery and strong character."
Cunningham added that when Leali'ifano does depart just before the beginning of the Six Nations, the side will "re-evaluate" their out-half options.