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Ulster Rugby swoop to bring in inspirational Christian Leali'ifano

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By Jonathan Bradley

Few players have ever arrived at Kingspan Stadium with a more inspirational back story than latest recruit Christian Leali'ifano.

The Belfast Telegraph understands that the Australian international back is set to sign a short-term deal to play at Ulster this autumn and winter, with the move expected to be confirmed early next week.

Capable of providing a real touch of class for a backline that has already lost Ruan Pienaar this summer, and will begin the season without Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, the temporary switch from Brumbies to Ulster is only the latest step in what has been an inspiring journey to come back to the highest level after overcoming a battle with leukaemia.

Back in 2013, after he made his international bow on the biggest of stages - starting all three Tests in that summer's British and Irish Lions series - the man who was born in Auckland but moved to Melbourne with his family aged seven was seen as one of the upcoming stars of Australian rugby.

He would play his part as the Brumbies made the Super Rugby final that year, scoring 22 points in the defeat, and was a Wallaby regular until the end of the 2014 campaign, but was a surprising omission from Michael Cheika's World Cup squad the next year.

He would soon force his way back into the former Leinster boss' plans, only to be handed the devastating leukaemia diagnosis in the summer of 2016.

He found a bone marrow match in his sister Sally, but even after the transplant he still doubted if he would ever play professional rugby again.

"Luckily enough for me, my younger sister is a match," he said at the time.

"For the family, that is quite a special thing and for your sister to give you the gift of trying to save your life, it's quite special.

"I hope one day to be able to run out there on the field, whether that be club footy. If not, I'm happy to accept that as well.

"I've had two treatments of chemotherapy which have pretty much put me in remission going into this transplant. Both bouts I got infections, because you've got no immune system.

"But I'm young, pretty fit and I've got a suitable match.

"One thing they can't guarantee is that everyone will be cured, but it gives you every chance of beating it."

And beat it he did, returning to the rugby field just 10 months later.

It was back in June of this year that he made his remarkable return to the Brumbies side, first appearing in the club's exhibition match against the Asia Pacific Dragons in Singapore.

"It was fantastic to get back onto the field and play some rugby after such a long lay-off," he said after the game.

"This is another step in the recovery process and it felt good to be on the field and fully involved again.

"I am concentrating totally on my recovery and my rugby at the moment and my focus is on helping the team and trying to get back to full health and my best as a rugby player."

A hamstring strain on the eve of his Super Rugby return delayed his first top-flight action since the diagnosis, but he would go on to feature off the bench in the Canberra outfit's quarter-final defeat to the Hurricanes.

And now, it seems, that when he next pulls on a jersey, it will be Ulster white.

It is hoped Leali'ifano, who is represented by former Ulster full-back Clinton Schifcofske, will arrive in time to meet up with his new team-mates during pre-season, possibly even lining out in the side's PRO14 opener against the Cheetahs on September 1.

The coup will provide a real boost to Ulster ahead of that big kick-off, coming just one day after it emerged that Charles Piutau had accepted a big-money deal at Championship side Bristol from next season.

Having had to move swiftly into the market after Jackson and Olding were stood down - pending legal charges that both men deny - fans will be relieved that Operations Director Bryn Cunningham has been able to bring in a player of such undoubted quality at a time hardly ideal for seeking new talent.

With the season just three weeks away, Les Kiss and his coaches finally know what they're working with.

Leali'ifano factfile

Name: Christian Leali'ifano

Age: 29

Born: Auckland

Position: Out-half/centre

Club history: ACT Brumbies 2006-present

International honours: 19 Australia caps

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