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Dublin: 15 °C Wednesday 20 March, 2019

'When you're under pressure, who stands up and who doesn't fold?': Kiss hails lasting Lealiifano impact

The Australian playmaker, “a warrior through and through”, bade farewell to Belfast ahead of his return to the Brumbies later this month.

WITH EIGHT MINUTES to go, the Kingspan Stadium faithful rose to its feet.

Christian Lealiifano waves goodbye to the Ulster fans on his last game Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Christian Lealiifano was being called ashore for the last time of his short stint in Belfast.

The Australian playmaker will return to the Brumbies later this month with no medals or even anything approaching a perfect record to his name, but the affection for the Wallaby in the northern province is utterly genuiine. Ulster appreciate Lealiifano’s influence, and his presence in extremely difficult conditions.

Nobody doubted the 30-year-old’s character when he was brought north as a stop-gap solution to Paddy Jackson’s absence. His battle with leukaemia is well documented and his return to top level rugby is testament to his personality. However, what has surprised many is his durability.

Early in the season, Les Kiss signalled that the Australian would be used sparingly, perhaps to play as little as once a fortnight. His part in yesterday’s hard-fought win over La Rochelle – Ulster’s 18th match of the season – was his 16th appearance.

It’s not as though he’s playing behind a pack who have been steam-rolling all before them either. This is Ulster. So Lealifano has had to show some of that iron will to power through physical complaints and battle on.

“He was hurting, he got damaged in the left shoulder (during win over La Rochelle). You might have seen him rubbing the wing there a few times,” said Les Kiss post-match yesterday.

Christian Lealiifano is clapped off the pitch by his teammate on his last game for Ulster

For a coach who has been under fire from many corners, mere mention of the out-half was enough to spark Kiss into passionate words of acclaim for his compatriot.

“It’s happened a few times, we’ve been in the sheds and we’ve asked: ‘are you okay? Busted rib?’ But he’s a warrior through and through.

“It’s his last home game, there were a few words said, but we also said: ‘you’ve got one more to do for us’.

“A real thing that he’s left behind is the things he does around the place. That’s adding to the culture we’re trying to build.

As an organisation you’ve got to be better than your weakest people. You’ve got to grow each day and, when you’re in distress and under pressure, who stands up and who doesn’t fold?  Who doesn’t start pointing fingers everywhere?

“He’s epitomised the true nature of what we’re trying to build here. He’ll be a loss, but we’ve got someone else coming in to help Johnny McPhillips, Brett Herron, Pete Nelson to hopefully build on that.

“He’s left an indellible mark on the place. More than the rugby, he’s a man of character.

“But there’s one more to come from him, that’s what we’re after.”

The ‘someone else’ Kiss mentions will almost certainly be 34-year-old World Cup-winning out-half Stephen Donald, a different kind of skill-set to seap into the province’s fabric for the remainder of the season.

For another week at least though, Lealiifano remains very much the here and now. Ulster’s win coupled with Harlequins’ astounding comeback win over Wasps means that the inspirational playmaker has the chance to leave his temporary team safely docked in the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup.

Jacob Stockdale with Jérémy Sinzelle Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

With a five-point gap to the summit going in to the final round of games, the Premiership side know only a bonus point victory by more than seven points will suffice. For Ulster, a bonus point win would guarantee top place in the pool, but anything less would leave the door open for La Rochelle, who will be confident of scoring four tries at home to Harlequins. As for second places, there’s still plenty to come out in the wash over the course of the matches ahead today.

Wiehahn Herbst is likely to be fit for the trip to Coventry after pulling out of this weekend’s squad with a calf issue, but Craig Gilroy has a suspected broken cheekbone after a colission in the first half.

“There’s a lot than can still happen,” Kiss said, unaware of the drama that would later unfold at the Stoop,”it’s tough and tight, but every pool’s got something.

“From our perspective, it’s satisfying to know we’re still in the hunt and we did what we had to today.”

‘Vicious, belligerent’ Ulster delivered at the vital moments

Brilliant Best leads ferocious Ulster to victory over La Rochelle

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Sean Farrell

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