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Dublin: 13°C Saturday 19 September 2020

Warrior Lealiifano poised to star in World Cup after overcoming leukaemia

The Australian out-half took on a stint with Ulster as he mounted his return to top class rugby.

YOU DON’T HAVE to dig too deep to find the feel-good stories at a World Cup. Every team will feature players who have had to overcome obstacles of varying gradients to get to rugby’s biggest stage.

But there are none to match the journey Christian Lealiifano has come through.

rugby-championship-australia-new-zealand Source: AAP/PA Images

It was only three years ago that Lealiifano stepped into a doctor’s office for what was supposed to be a routine blood test. Rugby would shortly become the least of his concerns.

At just 28 years of age, Lealiifano was diagnosed with leukaemia.

By this stage Lealiifano, born in Auckland to Samoan parents, was an established international, and should have been at the peak of his fitness. Playing for Super Rugby side the Brumbies, he had represented Australia 19 times since making his international debut in 2013.

Yet a few weeks after the Brumbies were defeated in the Super Rugby finals, Lealiifano was encouraged to go see a doctor after complaining of fatigue, an issue he had initially put down to the long nights that come hand in hand with having a newborn baby in the house.

His tiredness had been becoming increasingly noticeable as he began to struggle in training, with front row players suddenly beating the light-footed fly-half in sprints.

It soon became clear that the problem was far more serious that anticipated. Three days after receiving his diagnosis, Lealiifano began chemotherapy. He then underwent a bone-marrow transplant after his sister, Sally, had been identified as a donor match.

He held on to ambitions of resuming his rugby career, despite being told that he might never get to lace up his boots again as his weight plummeted and his iron levels dipped.

“I lost 14 kilos in 13 days and it was a tough period working back up, getting back to the weight, getting back to full strength and running fitness,” Lealiifano told The42 in 2017.

Slowly, his condition began to improve. Ever the optimist, Lealiifano eyed a return as early as the following season. He was back on the pitch playing professional rugby less than a year on from his initial diagnosis.

“When I first started training I thought I would never play football again,” says the playmaker.

“When the doctor gave me the all clear that I could return back to work, that was when I had my eye on the prize.”

christian-lealiifano-with-his-wife-luga-and-their-son-jeremih Lealiifano with his wife Luga and their son Jeremih after an inter-pro clash with Connacht. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

As part of his comeback, Lealiifano signed a five-month contract with Ulster during the close of the Super Rugby season. Yet even during that brief stay in Belfast, the player became a fan favourite and was an inspirational figure for the province both on and off the pitch. Supporters and team-mates alike were struck by his tenacity and a seemingly never-ending drive to get up and carry on even after taking severe punishment.

Les Kiss, the Ulster Director of Rugby at the time, was effusive in his praise for their overseas star. Never more so than after his penultimate Ulster appearance, a European Cup pool stage win over La Rochelle.

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

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“He was hurting, he got damaged in the left shoulder. You might have seen him rubbing the wing there a few times.

“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.”

christian-lealiifano-is-subbed-off The Kingspan rises to wave farewell to Lealiifano. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Lealiifano left Ulster with his stock rising, returning to the Brumbies in early 2018 as co-captain and sparking rumours of a return to international Test rugby. Over the course of the season, his performances became too good for Michael Cheika, the Australia head coach, to overlook.

In June, the 31-year-old kicked 11 points in a 16-11 defeat of Argentina, his first appearance for Australia in three years. It marked another milestone in his incredible recovery as he reached two years without showing any signs of cancer.

“I had some really dark days where things got tough and all those negative thoughts come into your mind,” Lealiifano admitted.

“The ‘why me’ and ‘should I just give up’ type stuff, but to be able to come out the other side of that has been quite an amazing thing.”

Lealiifano has done more than just come out the other side. He has come out on top having played his way to become first-choice number 10.

He’s come a remarkably long way since being deemed surplus to requirements for the 2015 World Cup squad.

rugby-wallabies-captains-run Christian Lealiifano in training this summer. Source: AAP/PA Images

Regardless of how Australia’s campaign plays out, the tournament will be Lealiifano’s last involvement with the Wallabies, with the player set to start a new challenge with Japanese side NTT Communications, an offer that he deemed “too good to turn down”, ending his 12-year involvement with the Brumbies.

Australia begin their Pool D campaign with a tricky meeting with Fiji at the Soppora Dome on Saturday (5.45am, eir Sport), before clashes with Wales, Uruguay and Georgia.

Though few are tipping the Wallabies to return to their best form or embark on another run to the final, they have an enviable track record of delivering at World Cups.

Don’t bet against Lealiifano signing off on a high. He’s overcome far greater adversities.

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