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I'll cherish my time at Ulster: Leali'ifano

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Much like a rugby ball, the camera has an awful habit of finding those doing their best to avoid it.

Such was the case last week when Christian Leali'ifano made his exit in the 73rd minute against La Rochelle, his last game at Kingspan Stadium as an Ulster player.

The Auckland-born Wallaby signed a five-month deal back in August as Ulster looked to plug a gap in the out-half jersey and the player sought to continue his way back after being diagnosed with leukaemia in August 2016.

What initially seemed a short-term deal that would be mutually beneficial for both sides turned into something much more substantial given how the player took to his temporary home, culminating in last week's emotional send-off.

With the game hanging in the balance, the 30-year-old (above with his wife Luga and their son Jeremih) was aiming for an inconspicuous departure from proceedings, only for the Ulster faithful to show plenty of appreciation as he jogged to the dugout.

"I was very overwhelmed but we still had a game to win and I didn't want all the focus to be on me coming off for the last time," he said.

"I was a bit overwhelmed and I just wanted a moment to myself to reflect but the cameras found a way to follow me.

"They were right in my face the whole way. I didn't want it to be about me but the reception was amazing.

"I don't want the focus to be about me. I'm a bit shy when I talk about myself so it's hard when I do, or when I see it or read it.

"But last week at home, with it being Europe as well, the send-off that I got was something that I'll never forget.

"The crowd here, and all the supporters and fans all over social media, it's been really humbling.

"It's been a sort of sad week, counting the days until you won't be around here any more, a place I've really enjoyed."

With just five weeks to go before the Super Rugby season begins, Leali'ifano will head back to the Brumbies after tomorrow's decisive Champions Cup clash with Wasps (3.15pm kick-off, Ricoh Arena) and feels the last number of months have been crucial in getting his mind and body back to the level required for top-level rugby after his cancer battle.

"The plan was to head back a bit refreshed and with some good rugby under my belt," he said. "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.

"I obviously got to travel a little bit of Europe as well with some of the games. I've had some down time with the family to explore too.

"To experience the rugby culture as well was a real eye-opener for me.

"To see different levels of rugby, different quality of rugby and to play with different players, Tommy Bowe, Rory Best, Charles Piutau, to rub shoulders with them was something I never thought I'd do this time 12 months ago.

"Those boxes have been ticked and it's something I'm really grateful that I've done."

There is still one job to go, and to sign off having delivered Ulster back to the last eight in Europe for the first time since 2014 would no doubt be the perfect ending.

"I feel like I've really got the job done by enjoying my rugby and the experience that I've had," he said. "But ideally, it would be nice to get the team through into a quarter-final in Europe, and set the team up to move forward in a good place."

Regardless of how tomorrow pans out, Ulster fans will no doubt be keeping an eye out for whatever he does in the future, with many hoping that they haven't seen the last of him.

Out of contract with the Brumbies after the upcoming Super Rugby season, is this definitely the last we'll see of him in a white jersey?

"Well, you never know," he replied after a lengthy laugh.

"Obviously people have made it pretty public they want me back and want me to come back in Ulster colours. Look, this place is going to be a special place to me for a long time even if I've only been here a short time.

"But the impact that people have had on myself and on my family and the memories that I have from here is something I will cherish for a long time.

"It is somewhere I will definitely look to explore in the future. Whether everything works out, or those opportunities arise again, you never know, but hopefully... one day."

Verdict: Ulster

Aiming to make a return to the last eight of Europe after three seasons away, Les Kiss has largely kept faith with the side that beat La Rochelle, with Mattie Rea the only non-enforced change. Wasps can expect to have little to play for by the time the game kicks off and Ulster should edge a narrow one.

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