Thursday 22 February 2018

'You never know, you could be six feet under tomorrow' - New Ulster star on leukemia recovery

Lealiifano eager to make an impression at Ulster after recovering from leukaemia

Australian international Christian Lealiifano is ready to leave his mark at Kingspan Stadium after getting a second chance in life and sport. Photo by John Dickson/Sportsfile
Australian international Christian Lealiifano is ready to leave his mark at Kingspan Stadium after getting a second chance in life and sport. Photo by John Dickson/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Christian Lealiifano counts himself lucky every morning when he wakes up. That he is still playing professional rugby is very much an added bonus.

Just over a year ago, the Australian international had his world turned upside down when he was diagnosed with leukaemia.

Several rounds of gruelling chemotherapy followed while he also underwent a life-saving bone marrow transplant from his sister Sally.

Lealiifano has his family name tattooed on his left forearm and even though it was inked prior to his illness, it is a constant reminder of that special bond.

The 29-year-old was given the news that so many people had hoped for in February. The cancer had gone into remission and he could finally get on with his life. Few, however, expected him to return to professional rugby.

He made his comeback for the Brumbies in June and now finds himself in new surrounds in Belfast. Lealiifano will play with Ulster until the conclusion of their Champions Cup pool campaign in January.

He may now be at the other side of the world, but that's not the only aspect of his life that has utterly changed in the same time.

"I am really and truly grateful for the opportunity that I get to play rugby again," Lealiifano admits.

"I said all along my health was number one, just to get back to being a father to my little boy, that was number one. Being able to play rugby again is an absolute bonus.

"I'm grateful every day that I get to step out again and do what I love doing while I can. I'm really, really stoked about the opportunity that I have now."

Lucky

During his illness, Lealiifano made a conscious decision to shy away from the public eye. As he sadly puts it, not everyone gets as lucky as he did.

"All I could do was enjoy each day for what is was, and be positive whatever the day throws at you," he continues.

"You never know, tomorrow could finish you and you're six feet under. That's my approach. Rugby was the end goal but I wanted to take each day and maximise each day."

Playing with Ulster for the next five months affords the 19-times capped Wallaby a chance to get some much-needed game time under his belt before the new Super Rugby season begins next year.

He has been handed a second chance, not only in life but also in rugby and it's one he isn't about to pass up.

"I'm humbled that a team still values what I can produce and what I can do," Lealiifano maintains.

"To think that you probably couldn't play rugby again through that time is definitely hard, and then to be able to come through the other side is truly rewarding.

"To know you can pull a jersey on again and do some gym work and throw the footy around with the guys is rewarding.

"Coming back... 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.

"There's been a lot of people to thank and credit for that. Being in a (rugby) structure definitely helped with the process. It was tough.

"I look back now and I'm quite proud. It's hard, you never want to pat yourself on the back or anything, but to think of the journey I've had, and being here today, it's something that I'm truly grateful for.

"There are other people who put the work in, and you owe them to put the work back out, if that makes sense?"

That his incredible journey has led him to Belfast is partly down to his agent Clinton Schifcofske, who spent two seasons (2008-10) playing with Ulster. It is also due to Ulster's desperate need to sign an experienced out-half.

He won't travel with the squad to Northampton this evening but on Monday morning, he will take to the training pitch with his new team-mates with a view to featuring in their Guinness PRO14 opener against the Cheetahs next Friday.

"Knowing my agent played here and he spoke really highly of it, and the history here. It was something I was really interested in," he says of his move to Ulster.

"I've been in Australia for a long time and at the Brumbies set-up for 10 years now, so it's all I've known. Something I wanted to do was play rugby somewhere different and the last 12 months have really been a big emotional drain and then to finally get back and play has been really rewarding."

There will be a big responsibility on Lealiifano's broad shoulders for the time that he is in Belfast.

With a new-look half-back partnership set to include the Australian and John Cooney (27), it will fall on the elder statesmen to get Ulster's potent back line moving.

"I think it's more fun really," he insists. There's challenges, but when you're enjoying your rugby everyone is a lot closer to reaching their potential. That's something that excites me. There's talented guys here, in that back-line especially, and I'm looking forward to it.

"You talk about adding value, and if leadership qualities are something I can add, I'm more than happy to do it. With a few young fly-halves, I'm looking forward to working closely with them. I love seeing development and people reaching their potential.

"The main thing is enjoying rugby again and this is somewhere I think I will enjoy it and have some success too. I truly believe that they have a nice playing group to help me mix in and have fun again with footy and grow my game."

Having fun is all part of his quest to live every day as it comes.

Irish Independent

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