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Leali'ifano savouring every minute at Ulster

 

By Jonathan Bradley

When most big-name imports arrive in Belfast, they are struck by one of two things - the city's relentless rain or the speed with which the locals speak.

Not so Christian Leali'ifano, who believes the starkest difference between his temporary home and back in Australia is evidenced in his daily commute.

"When you are sitting in traffic and there are cars backed up for miles, someone will let someone in," he marvelled when talking about his transition from the Brumbies to Ulster.

"You are just like, 'That is the politeness of the people and this culture'.

"It is pretty easy going, it's like, 'We are not in a big rush to get anywhere, we will get where we get to when we want'. That took me by surprise.

"Everyone is tooting horns back in Australia and trying to get somewhere as fast as they can. It is just a small example but it encapsulates the nature of the Belfast people I think.

"I don't think I've had a day where I haven't been thankful to be here. This organisation and my team-mates have been fantastic, their partners have been fantastic in reaching out to my partner as well and making us feel really at home here.

"We're really enjoying the people of Belfast and this beautiful province."

After an inspirational recovery from leukaemia to be back playing top-level rugby, the 30-year-old originally signed up at Kingspan Stadium until only the end of January in an effort to get game time ahead of the 2018 Super Rugby season but, such has been his experience so far, he is not ruling out another stint down the line.

"Hopefully if I have got enough years of rugby left in me," he said of making a European return. "This has definitely opened up my eyes to see this part of the world.

"Coming over here, I wanted to play rugby again and enjoy it and wanted to do it in a different environment and a different culture. I have known Australian rugby and Brumbies rugby for a long time so to have the opportunity to do something different was something I was really looking forward to.

"How they play rugby, and the passion they have for the sport, is something that has really been an eye-opener.

"It is definitely something I would look at down the track if I want to come back at some stage to maybe finish my career.

"(Former Australia team-mate) George Smith added some years coming to Europe so maybe I might have to come back and add some years too."

For now, though, there is the more immediate matter of his European Champions Cup debut against Wasps at Kingspan Stadium tonight (7.45pm).

Against a side he was aware of last season thanks to the presence of old Wallaby running mate Kurtley Beale, then enjoying his own European sojourn, it is a game Leali'ifano has been looking forward to.

"I think there's excitement (for me) in all the talk about how big the European games are, and how amazing the atmosphere will be," he said.

"I've been excited for the challenge ahead, but for me day-to-day it's all about trying to improve and get our game going to where we want it to go.

"When Kurtley was there he was playing fantastic rugby for them, and I've been speaking to Charlie (Charles Piutau) about his time with them and how he enjoyed it.

"They've definitely got some quality backs and some quality individuals there who are big threats, and I think their set-piece is definitely something we need to try and nullify."

Key to his side's chances both tonight and in the pool will be his own partnership with scrum-half John Cooney.

With Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson having been Ulster's undisputed nine-ten combo since 2012, the new men have forged an improbably quick understanding and, having both missed the Zebre trip, won every game they have played together.

As Leali'ifano jokes, though, one of them has to lose in training every day.

"We have goal-kicking competitions and he's always teasing me about how I'm an international goal-kicker and he just kicks for a hobby," laughed the 19-times-capped Aussie.

"We joke around, it's all a lot of fun, and that's what makes the environment really enjoyable, these are guys you can have banter with.

"I think I owe him a few coffees so far so I've got to try and pick my game up. I'm really enjoying that combination.

"He reads the ball really well and that makes my job a lot easier.

"He's like a little kid on red cordial or something, he just runs everywhere.

"I'm really enjoying running around and playing with him, and I hope we can continue to get better."

Bradley's Verdict

In this competition there really is slim margin for error, especially so at home. Les Kiss and his side have been handed one of the more manageable pools but must get off to a quick start if they are to have serious aspirations of a quarter-final berth. With Wasps on a short turnaround and missing some stars, the hosts can edge this.

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