Ulster star and leukaemia survivor Christian Leali’ifano: 'I wanted to be a father again...playing rugby is a bonus'
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 along with my journey,” said Leali’ifano, who remarkably will make his debut in the Champions Cup for Ulster against Wasps in the tournament opener in Belfast on Friday night.
“I probably didn’t expect the enormity of their support. Everyone has reached out and encouraged me and sort of called me an inspiration, which I find hard to accept. That part is really humbling and makes me be grateful and enjoy it a lot more.”
“I have probably found it a bit hard to know that there are people out there who are probably going through similar things and families that probably don’t have the same outcomes. [But] where I can inspire them to have hope and give them strength is something I am pretty proud of.”
It is impossible not to draw inspiration from Leali’ifano’s story, a remarkable journey of resilience that culminated with his decision to join Ulster on a short-term contract in August, which gave him the chance to rebuild his life in a new environment and culture before he returns to the Brumbies in February. He lost two stone in 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.