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Former Ulster favourite Christian Lealiifano recalled to Australia squad ahead of World Cup

Fan favourite: Christian Leali’ifano impressed during his short stay at Ulster
Fan favourite: Christian Leali’ifano impressed during his short stay at Ulster
Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

Christian Lealiifano is back in the Australia squad for the first time since being diagnosed with leukaemia in 2016.

The 31-year-old has made it into the 34-man panel for his side's opening Rugby Championship game against South Africa on July 20.

Lealiifano, in remission since February 2017, sparked his return to top level rugby with a brief spell at Kingspan Stadium in the first half of the 17/18 season.

Endearing himself to the Ulster support with a string of top performances, Lealiifano took that form back to the Brumbies.

And his displays in Super Rugby have now been rewarded with a return to international rugby in perfect time ahead of the autumn World Cup in Japan.

"I'm not the expert to speak on what Christian has been through, only he knows that and his family," said Australia coach Michael Cheika of Lealiifano's cancer battle.

"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 that he's achieved, he's been playing good in Super Rugby and deserves to be there."

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.

Despite fearing he would never play again, Lealiifano made his stunning return to rugby less than a year after his diagnosis,  first appearing in the Brumbies' exhibition match against the Asia Pacific Dragons in June 2017.

Then came the move to Ulster that kick-started the rise that looks likely to lead to Lealiifano's 20th international cap.

"The plan was to head back a bit refreshed and with some good rugby under my belt," he said of his time at Ulster. "I feel I've achieved that in a short time. I'm excited to get a bit of sunshine, a bit of heat, and see my family too.

"I feel in a really good space. I didn't think I'd play to the level that I have.

"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 and something I never take for granted each day coming in here to work."

Lealiifano's call-up to the Australia squad comes at the expense of Melbourne Rebels fly-half Quade Cooper, who had been linked with a move to Ulster after his compatriot's departure.

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