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Be positive, whatever life throws at you, urges new Ulster signing Leali'ifano

Ulster new boy Christian's philosophy

By Jonathan Bradley

Twelve months ago, Christian Leali'ifano wouldn't have given much thought to the possibility that he'd be sat in Kingspan's Stadium's media room wearing a gleaming white, box-fresh Ulster jersey.

Not that the idea of playing his rugby in far off places didn't appeal, it was an ambition he had long harboured, but last August, having just been diagnosed with leukaemia, it couldn't have been further from his mind.

"Just to get back to be a father and a dad to my little boy, that was number one for me," he said of 14-month Jeremih who, along with Leali'ifano's partner Luga, also arrived in Belfast on Wednesday for a five-month stint.

"Being able to play rugby again, that's a bonus.

"The last 12 months have really been a big emotional drain and to finally get back and play has been really rewarding.

"I'm grateful every day that I get to step out again and do what I love doing while I can."

Having arrived in Ulster to solve something of a fly-half crisis, and after his agent, former Ulsterman Clinton Schifcofske, was able to give him the hard sell, Leali'ifano is keen to bank as much time on the field as possible before returning home after the conclusion of the Champions Cup pool stages, which perhaps should come as no surprise given that after his diagnosis, he thought he may never play again.

"To think that you probably couldn't play rugby again through that time was definitely hard," he reflected.

"To be able to come through the other side is truly rewarding. To know you can pull a jersey on again and do some gym work, throw the footy around with the guys, is rewarding.

"I'm really grateful and humbled, humbled that a team still values what I can produce and what I can do."

To reach this point, however, has been a long process, one that began with bone marrow transplant from his younger sister last winter.

Forever grateful for the help he received from others, the 19-times capped Australian developed a new perspective along the way.

"All you can do is enjoy each day for what it is and be positive, whatever the day throws at you," he said. "You never know, tomorrow could finish you and then you're six feet under.

"Playing rugby (again) was the end goal but I wanted to take each day and maximise each day.

"I lost 14 kilos in 13 days and it was a tough period working back up, getting back to the weight, getting back to full strength and running fitness.

"There's been a lot of people to thank and credit for that. I look back now and I'm quite proud.

"It's hard because you never want to pat yourself on the back, but to think of the journey I've had, and now being here today, it's something that I'm truly grateful for.

"There's other people put the work in, and you owe them to put the work back out if that makes sense. It's been tough but rewarding to be back in a position to do what I love doing."

Leali'ifano has actually played in what was then Ravenhill before - he, along with the likes of David Pocock and Quade Cooper were part of an Australian Schools side that beat Ireland Under-19s in 2005 - and, although so much has changed in 12 years, he can't help but look forward to getting back out on the pitch he last graced as an 18-year-old, a first chance to do so coming with next week's Guinness PRO14 opener against the Cheetahs.

"I've got only five months here so I want to maximise every opportunity I can. Next Friday is something that I'm aiming for already. If I'm playing or not, I'll try and add value.

"It's been a pretty quick transition. I saw the team do their captain's run (before facing Northampton tonight) and I've sat down with the coaches to go through some things as well, to try and fast track that a little bit.

"I have a little bit of time while they're away this weekend to sit down and watch some stuff, and watch them play as well over the next day or so.

"Then, hopefully, hit the ground running on Monday."

Ulster will need him to do just that, as they start the season without both of last year's primary half-backs.

Ruan Pienaar is preparing for a new campaign in the south of France with Montpellier, while Paddy Jackson has been stood down pending the outcome of legal proceedings.

While his contract runs only for a period encompassing 19 games - Jackson made 18 appearances for the side last year due to international commitments - Leali'ifano is hoping to make a big impact in a short time.

"Probably over the years I've developed a lot of experience and an ability to lead the side around from the fly-half position from a playmaker point of view," he said of what he can bring to the team.

"I like to play attacking rugby, like to run the footy a little bit, and then try to be sort of solid in defence and not shy away from the breakdown work as well.

"I'm happy to play anywhere but I do prefer a little bit of 10. It's somewhere I like, directing the team and playing the style we want to play."

And while his return to Australia is set for January 22, he teases that day may not be the last we see of him in this part of the world.

"(Europe) is something that was looked into each time contract talks came up, to explore something different. To have the opportunity is one thing, but to be able to follow through is another, being able to represent Australia is one thing that limited that.

"So to have this opportunity where all parties were okay with it, I definitely had to jump at it and I'm really excited.

"I'll try and add some value to the team, and experience as much as I can in this short time and then, hopefully further down the line or in the future, there's another opportunity."

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