‘Be­com­ing a fa­ther again was my mo­ti­va­tion to beat cancer’

Aus­tralian fly-half Leali’ifano is ready to turn out for Ul­ster after win­ning big­gest bat­tle

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Rugby Union - Gavin Mairs RUGBY NEWS COR­RE­SPON­DENT

Of all the chal­lenges that Chris­tian Leali’ifano has faced since he was first di­ag­nosed with leukaemia just over a year ago, and there have been many, it is the thought of be­ing a role model for oth­ers that trou­bles the Aus­tralian in­ter­na­tional. In his dark­est days, such as when he strug­gled to lift his one-year old son Jeremih with­out be­ing over­come with fa­tigue back in Fe­bru­ary, he had his part­ner Luga and an un­shake­able Chris­tian faith to keep his spir­its strong. So too did the mem­ory of his fa­ther, Tavita, who passed away in 2006 be­fore he was able to see Leali’ifano make his Su­per Rugby de­but for the Brumbies.

The 30-year-old had his fa­ther’s name tat­tooed on his left fore­arm after his death and, as he bat­tled against his ill­ness after his first di­ag­no­sis in Au­gust 2016, he was im­bued with a burn­ing de­sire to re­turn to full health so he could be a fa­ther again to his own son.

“You try to find an in­spi­ra­tion and mo­ti­va­tion wher­ever you can and I think my faith was a big part of that,” said Leali’ifano, who was born and raised in Auck­land un­til the age of seven when he moved to Mel­bourne. Sit­ting inside Ul­ster’s Kingspan Sta­dium, he adds: “Grow­ing up as a young Chris­tian boy in church, prayer was pow­er­ful and I felt it was truly pow­er­ful for me to lean on some­one there and know­ing that he is pro­tect­ing you and has a plan for you was some­thing that def­i­nitely in­spired me – know­ing that there was go­ing to be some­thing bet­ter for me, no mat­ter what the out­come.

“I think the tools and the hard­ships I have had in my life – los­ing my fa­ther – you def­i­nitely use to try to draw strength from. That def­i­nitely helped along the way with the jour­ney.”

Yet eight months on since he was told he was in re­mis­sion by his cancer spe­cial­ist, after un­der­go­ing a bone-mar­row trans­plant and chemo­ther­apy, Leali’ifano ad­mits it is dif­fi­cult to ac­cept that his story is in­spi­ra­tional to oth­ers. Not be­cause he does not want to help, but that he is acutely aware that oth­ers are not so for­tu­nate as him.

“The rugby com­mu­nity has been mas­sive in help­ing me,” said Leali’ifano, who re­mark­ably will make his de­but in the Cham­pi­ons two weeks dur­ing the chemo treat­ment but never lost the de­ter­mi­na­tion to keep bat­tling to re­claim his life, first as a fa­ther and then as a rugby player who has won 19 caps for the Wal­la­bies, and has not given up hope of pulling on the green and gold again.

“It was all about health first,” he added. “Get as healthy as I could to be a fa­ther again first and fore­most, and then to be a rugby player after that again was a bonus. It was tough. I couldn’t hold my son for long pe­ri­ods of time; I was so tired and would fa­tigue quickly.

“In Fe­bru­ary I started some light work. I was prob­a­bly lift­ing five or 10 kilo dumb­bell weights and get­ting re­ally tired. My part­ner could prob­a­bly have lifted more than me at that time. It frus­trated me but I knew it was a start­ing point for me and then it was about im­prov­ing each day.”

He made his first re­turn as an ath­lete for the Brumbies in their Su­per Rugby quar­ter-fi­nal de­feat in July be­fore join­ing Ul­ster as the Ir­ish province looked for a short-term, fly-half re­place­ment for Paddy Jack­son, who has been stood down as he con­tests a rape charge that he de­nies.

Now Leali’ifano is al­ready mak­ing his mark for Ul­ster, high­light­ing his time off the pitch to de­velop promis­ing young tal­ent as just as im­por­tant as the im­pres­sive part­ner­ship he is striking with scrum-half John Cooney, as the former Con­nacht player at­tempts to fill the sig­nif­i­cant hole left by Ruan Pien­aar’s de­par­ture.

“I’m only here for a short time so it’s about adding growth and de­vel­op­ing some of the younger guys,” he said. “It’s been help­ing Pete Nel­son, Brett Her­ron, Johnny Mcphillips – the young five-eighths – to be con­fi­dent in what they’re do­ing and build an at­ti­tude of try­ing to im­prove each day and get bet­ter, and there’s al­ways time where you can im­prove. So, if I can give them the right tools to do that, then Ul­ster Rugby will be in a good po­si­tion.”

For now though the fu­ture can wait. Leali’ifano’s ex­pe­ri­ence over the last 12 months has taught him that there is noth­ing like the present. And who can blame him.

Fight­ing back: Chris­tian Leali’ifano was di­ag­nosed with leukaemia a year ago

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