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Ex-Ulster favourite Christian Leali'ifano ready for 'big step up' as Australia face England


Powerhouse: Australia’s former Ulster player Christian Leali’ifano puts in a tough session in the gym
Powerhouse: Australia’s former Ulster player Christian Leali’ifano puts in a tough session in the gym
Michael Cheika
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

As the World Cup prepares to kick up a gear, former Ulster favourite Christian Leali'ifano has backed himself and his Australia team to rise to the physical challenge sure to be posed by England in the quarter-finals.

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The Wallaby out-half's story is among the most remarkable at this tournament, overcoming a leukemia diagnosis in 2016 to return not just to professional rugby but the green and gold's number ten jersey via a short stint in Belfast that saw him quickly embraced by the Kingspan Stadium faithful.

With Australia having started three different out-halves so far in this tournament - Bernard Foley and Matt Toomua have also been in the run-on side - rotation has been the order of the day for Australia coach Michael Cheika.

The former Leinster supremo explained the rationale behind his selections yesterday as he ponders his options ahead of facing England on Saturday in Oita (8.15am UK-time kick-off).

"We were always going into (the World Cup) thinking that we will share roles in that position," he said.

"Obviously Christian hasn't played a lot of Test footy. He's been building and building and building from quite a serious illness and it takes time for him to get up to the levels that he needs to.

"I'm not going to throw him out there in every game, in every minute of every game, and say go 'slug it out'. The same at training, because you want him to keep his energy."

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For his part, having started against both Fiji and Uruguay to date, Leali'ifano says that despite being somewhat under the weather at the team hotel in Odawara yesterday, he feels ready whenever called upon from here on in.

"Pretty good," he said of his physical condition. "I've spoken a bit about the management of my load and I've been really grateful for that, how Cheika and his staff have managed that. So, feeling as good as I can. Obviously got a little bit of a cold but that's I think because the typhoon came in and the change of weather but feeling pretty good physically and mentally as well."

On whether he could play three bruising Tests in three consecutive weeks should the Wallabies keep their World Cup bandwagon rolling to the finish line, the 32-year-old wasn't looking beyond the challenge of the last eight.

"It's just been managing each game as we go and seeing how I felt day-to-day. I guess I'd be confident to if I was called upon but I think it's just about coming back to a week-by-week case and seeing how they go," he said.

"We understand the level is going to go up now and (we will be) controlling what we can and that's our physicality and how we go about preparing each day.

"Training-wise it's definitely been up there, just progressing each week and throughout the tournament as well, trying to improve on that kind of stuff.

"So yeah, it's going to be a big step up and we're ready and training that way."

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