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Watch: How my faith helped me through leukaemia battle, explains Ulster's Christian Lealiifano

By Gareth Hanna

For one of Ulster's newest adopted sons, the 'inspiration' tag doesn't sit easy. Yet listen to Christian Lealiifano and it's hard to reach any other conclusion.

The 19-time capped Australia international is still getting back up to full speed after overcoming leukaemia, only 14 months on from his first diagnosis in August 2016. Chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant in November contibuted to a tough treatment schedule. And the 30 year-old pin-points his Christian faith as the power the helped him charge through his illness and back onto the rugby pitch inside a year.

“You try to find an inspiration and motivation wherever you can and I think my faith was a big part of that," he said. "Growing up as a young Christian boy in church, prayer was powerful and I felt it was truly powerful for me to lean on someone there and know that He is protecting you and has a plan for you was something that definitely inspired me and motivated me – knowing that there was going to be something better for me, no matter what the outcome. I truly had faith in that and trusted the process. I'm definitely grateful."

That's not to say the road back to rugby was in any way easy for Lealiifano. The treatment took its toll and the fit rugby star's body that sat before the press on Tuesday is the product of plenty of perspiration.

"To be able to lift some weight again was a big challenge," he said. "My partner could lift more weights than me. I couldn’t hold my son for long periods of time; I was so tired and would fatigue quickly.

"To see that journey get better and better was something that really helped me to keep motivated. It got to a point where I could play rugby again but it was all about health first. Get as healthy as I could to be a father again first and foremost, and then to be a rugby player after that again was a bonus. Something that I continue to strive for is to be better as a person first then as an athlete after.”

Both inside and outside the sport, Lealiifano's story has brought hope and encouragement. And as he doesn't wish to accept praise, Christian seems more than a little humbled that his story may, in turn, positively impact others.

He said: “The rugby community has been massive in helping me along with my journey. It's been truly amazing. I probably didn’t expect the enormity of their support. Everyone has reached out and encouraged me and sort of called me an inspiration, which I find hard to accept. That part is really humbling and makes me be grateful and enjoy things a lot more.

“I have probably found it a bit hard to know that there are people out there who are probably going through similar things and families that probably don’t have the same outcomes. Where I can inspire them to have hope and give them strength is something I am pretty proud of. I guess for charities and other organisations, if my story can inspire those people to stay strong and positive then hopefully that works out. I haven't really had too much involvement. My journey is still continuing but if I had have that opportunity, then it's down the track. It's still very fresh for me but hopefully I can help inspire people."

Lealiifano is on a short-term deal at Ulster, running until the end of the Champions Cup pool stages in January.

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