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Former Ulster favourite Leali'ifano caps off comeback journey

Ulster's Christian Lealiifano is clapped off the pitch by his team-mates on his last home game for Ulster.
Ulster's Christian Lealiifano is clapped off the pitch by his team-mates on his last home game for Ulster.
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

WITH less than six months to spend in Belfast, Christian Leali'ifano acted like a man who knew he had little time to waste upon arrival.

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Straight from the airport to Kingspan Stadium to introduce himself and get stuck in, the Brumbie who signed a half-season pact with Ulster in 2017 after battling back from leukaemia immediately impressed the playing group with his dedication to what was only ever going to be his short-term cause.

When he next addressed the squad as a whole, impressed was not strong enough a word.

"He made this presentation to the players about his illness," recalls Darren Cave, Ulster's most capped player.

"It really gave us a new level of understanding of it. You heard that he's had leukaemia and that now he's back playing rugby.

"You think that's impressive, because it is, obviously. But when you see the photos, and I mean we're talking he's lost his hair pretty much, he's so skinny. And at a very similar time, he became a dad for the first time.

"What that guy went through, when you see the pictures, it took that for everything to really hit home."

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It was in August of 2016 that a routine blood test discovered the cancer. Chemotherapy followed, as did a bone marrow transplant.

He dropped 12 kilos and struggled for energy after any sort of exertion. Rugby was far down his list of priorities.

“It was all about health first,” he said in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph during his stay. “Get as healthy as I could to be a father again first and foremost. To be a rugby player after that again was a bonus."

His son Jeremih seemed delighted to have his dad be both, the youngster and Christian's partner Luga quickly becoming a fixture down at the railings of Kingspan waiting for Leali'ifano to reach them on laps of honour after victory. In a trying time for the province, it was a rare sight to warm the heart.

But Leali'ifano was far more than an inspirational story, his performances on the field were what endeared him most to Ulster fans as he steadied a rocky ship and forged a strong partnership with John Cooney, himself then an Ulster new-boy too. For the short-time he was here, he was one of the side's better performers.

That it ended on a sour note was ill-fitting, a poor performance in the mire of the Ricoh Arena seeing Wasps end Ulster's hopes of progression in the Champions Cup. But, having arrived in a hurry, he seemed in no rush on the way out, signing autographs and posing for pictures in the snow of Coventry and then again in the airport.

For those who had seen the time he devoted to helping along young team-mates in a squad he'd soon not be a part of, the scene was no surprise.

"He'd do anything for you," says Chris Henry, another former Ulster team-mate. "People say that, but I genuinely don't think Christian would ever tell you he was too busy to do something.

"He has time for everybody and that's the thing about him...he really is just one of the nice guys."

Just as nobody in Belfast had a bad word to say about Leali'ifano, the Wallaby returned home preaching the virtues of his temporary home. When Henry Speight pitched up a year later on a similar deal, he cited the influence of the out-half's advice, as did Sam Carter, the lock who arrived this summer to bolster Ulster's pack for the next two seasons.

"He's a real special person to have around the team and he was a real mentor at the Brumbies," says Carter who served alongside him as a co-captain in Canberra.

"It's mainly his resilience. If you'd been through everything he's been through in his life, to see the way he deals with it and the way he carries himself and the way he has time for anyone and everyone, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone with a bad word to say about him."

Now, in an eventuality that would have seemed impossible, and frankly irrelevant three years ago, he's the starting ten for the Wallabies as their World Cup kicks off against Fiji tomorrow, his first ever game at the tournament coming three days shy of his 32nd birthday. It'll require an alarm clock for his fans in Ulster with a 5.45 am kick-off, but the early risers will witness what is sure to be the story of the tournament.

"It's incredible, isn't it?" muses Carter. "I'm really happy to see where he is at the moment because he's earned everything he's got.

"I wish him all the best and I can't wait to see how he goes."

Cave couldn't agree more.

"For him to be back in the international scene, and not just back but contributing is something else," he adds. "I've been a big fan of (Australia's other out-half option) Bernard Foley, he added a lot to that team but Christian is playing really well."I couldn't be happier for him. He went through so much not just for himself but with his young family too.

"I said this on Twitter at the time but it's still true...not all heroes wear capes."

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