Northern Exposure

'It's been a sort of sad week, counting the days until you won't be around here anymore, a place I've really enjoyed'

Christian Lealiifano is aiming to go out on a high with Ulster tomorrow.

INITIALLY IT WAS a marriage of convenience.

Christian Lealiifano in need of game time after an heroic battle with leukemia, Ulster in dire need of an out-half to step on a temporary basis. It worked for all involved.

Christian Lealiifano is clapped off the pitch by his teammate on his last game for Ulster Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Indeed, there was trepidation as he arrived, a buzz of excitement over the big name he was but also concern over how he would slot in after a year battling a disease that not only kept him off the pitch but stopped him doing any physical activity for an extended period.

But as the Australian stand-off sits in front of the media for the last time before heading back to Canberra to link up with parent club the Brumbies, there’s no fears of that anymore, and there’s a lot more to this week than just a goodbye.

In the six months he’s been in Belfast, Lealiifano has emerged as one of the key leaders within this Ulster squad as well as an exemplary first receiver in the back line, his class from before his illness still evident.

There’s more to it though — his presence in the dressing room has been lauded by players and coaches alike, they’ve raved over his attention to detail and his willingness to work with the young backs as well.

The 30-year-old has been a mainstay in the line-up too, playing an impressive 17 games — most of which he’s gone the whole 80 — and has scored 47 points overall, including tries away to La Rochelle and the Dragons.

Lealiifano hasn’t just seen out his stay here. He’s embraced it.

“(This week) is a little bit emotional,” the out-half admits. “Last week at home, with it being Europe as well, the send-off that I got was something that I’ll never forget.

“The crowd here, and all the supporters and fans all over social media, it’s been really humbling. The way they’ve taken to me over a short amount of time, it’s been a sort of sad week, counting the days until you won’t be around here anymore, a place I’ve really enjoyed.

“I’ll miss everything. I think I’ve really embraced (the weather), everyone talks about it a lot, but seeing snow, it’s an exciting time for me. I’ve really appreciated things like that. I’ll miss all aspects of being here in Ulster.”

Christian Lealiifano Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

The Brumbies too will have appreciated his time here; they get back a match-fit and mentally prepared out half who will slot in at what has been a problem position for them over the last couple of seasons.

It was the aim from the start — all three parties would benefit and Lealiifano would head home in a much better place than where he was when he made his debut back in September, something that’s clearly happened.

“I feel in a really good space. I didn’t think I’d play to the level that I have,” he reveals.

“I probably didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much as I have and to be able to tick those boxes off in terms of my health, first and foremost, and then to get fit and strong in rugby has been an absolute bonus and something I never take for granted each day coming in here to work.

“I’m really excited. The plan was to head back a bit refreshed and with some good rugby under my belt. I feel I’ve achieved that in the short time. I’m excited to get a bit of sunshine, a bit of heat, and see my family too.”

While last week was a heartfelt goodbye to Kingspan Stadium and Belfast, there’s still one game to go for Lealiifano, who is hoping to sign off his time in the northern hemisphere by leading Ulster to their first Champions Cup quarter-final since 2014.

Standing in their way are Wasps who, although mathematically still in the running, are all but eliminated from last eight contention but won’t want to face the prospect of losing at home in Europe.

A view Christian Lealiifano's tee ahead of his final Ulster game Ryan Byrne / INPHO Christian Lealiifano's tee ahead of his final Ulster game. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Any kind of win would see the Ulstermen into the knockouts, with a bonus point victory bringing the tie back to Belfast, and would end four years of heartache among the fans, who believe Ulster’s place is at the top table of European rugby.

Lealiifano will start his final game in the white jersey in a familiar half-back partnership alongside John Cooney and, while he has enjoyed his time at Ulster, he’s eager to end on a high note.

“I feel like I’ve really got the job done by enjoying my rugby and the experience that I’ve had. Anything we get on top of that is a bonus,” he claims.

“Ideally, it would be nice to get the team through into a quarter-final in Europe, and set the team up to move forward in a good place.”

Of course, although the focus is on the short term, there is the burning question of a reunion in the future.

“Yeah, you never know!” he laughs. “Obviously people have made it pretty public they want me back and want me to come back in Ulster colours.

“Look, this place is going to be a special place to me for a long time and I know I’ve only been here a short time but the impact that people have had on myself and on my family and the memories that I have from here is something I will cherish for a long time.

“It is somewhere I will definitely look to explore in the future. Whether everything works out or those opportunities arise again, you never know, but hopefully. One day.”

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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