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I'll give my all to the end of 'amazing' Ulster stay, says Leali'ifano

 

By Michael Sadlier

This is something he just cannot sidestep in the style we have become so accustomed to witnessing on the pitch.

And so Christian Leali'ifano confronts the issue of his Ulster exit early in the New Year with a sense of regret which is palpable.

It's the same for his soon to be ex-employers as well with both parties due to part from one another at the end of January.

Ulster could really do with him hanging about, and the player seems to genuinely like it here, but the terms of the loan deal always stipulated that the 30-year-old Australia international would stay for five months and then head back to base with the Brumbies.

It was a good piece of business too as the province badly needed a frontline out-half - though he is expected to play at inside centre and also step up to skipper Ulster in tomorrow night's return to PRO14 action against Treviso - while Leali'ifano required game time after his recovery from leukaemia.

But it has been more than simply just a transaction as Leali'ifano has gone about getting himself back to his best again.

The New Zealand-born but Australian player has clearly warmed to Ulster and the feeling from both players and supporters has been mutual.

All of which has set the rumour mill turning regarding the possibility of him staying on for the season, if not beyond.

"It's a difficult one," he said with a smile when asked if he just might be sticking around. "I think (for me) coming here initially it was just to do the five months and I didn't think I'd enjoy it as much.

"I didn't know how things would pan out, and it was a bit of a gamble, so for the team to put so much faith in me to be able to put some games together is something I have really enjoyed.

"That's made it tough (to leave). Obviously there has been a little bit of talk but I think that for all parties involved the best thing is to see out the contract and just do what I can for the time being."

Fair enough. Now there are a maximum of nine more games in which he could be involved with the last possible sighting of Leali'ifano in an Ulster shirt being the province's final Champions Cup pool game at Wasps.

He has certainly brought quality to the northern hemisphere and there was no better example of that than when he returned south of the equator at the start of the month and helped dig Ulster out of trouble against the Southern Kings through ambitious attack and crucial accuracy off the tee.

"It's been very beneficial (coming to Ulster)," he maintained when taking an overall look at how things have gone here. "In the mind more than anything to just refresh after being in Australia such a long time.

"For the body, physically it has been tough but I've been able to put my body through it and that has mentally given me a little bit and I'm really enjoying playing again.

"To experience something different over here in things like the European Cup and the inter-pros has also been quite amazing."

He played in Treviso the last time the sides met back in September, when Ulster clawed their way through to win 21-14, and though the Italians are expected to be rather light due to international call-ups, Leali'ifano senses that the injury-hit hosts still face quite a battle.

"We are prepared for a pretty hard contest and they will still come here with probably some belief with the way they played against us on their home ground," he insisted.

The plan is to leave Ulster in as good a place as possible before he breaks up what has been an eye-catching partnership with Charles Piutau.

There is no doubting it will be painful come the end of January and Leali'ifano modestly reckons that he is the one who has mostly benefited, though that rather smokescreens his noted influence on those around him in the Ulster squad.

"It's made me feel humbled to know a team has that much belief in you to put whatever journey you have had behind you and to move forward and play rugby consistently," he said.

We've just under two months to appreciate his honest eloquence and undeniable skill.

Leali'ifano doesn't intend to waste that time.

Belfast Telegraph

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