Leali'ifano's remarkable journey for Ulster
CHRISTIAN Leali'ifano's remarkable journey continues tonight when he makes his European debut for Ulster in the Champions Cup encounter with Wasps at the Kingspan Stadium, just 14 months after being diagnosed with leukaemia.
Brought in on a short-term contract to replace the unavailable Ireland fly-half Paddy Jackson, Leali'ifano will return home to Australia in February to play for the Brumbies.
In his short time in the province, he has already struck up an impressive half-back partnership with former Connacht scrum-half John Cooney but he is just thankful to be back playing the sport he loves.
"I'm really enjoying it at this organisation and my team mates and their partners as well have been fantastic, reaching out to my partner and I'm really enjoying the city of Belfast and this beautiful province." he said.
"The rugby community in general has been massive in helping me along with my journey; I probably didn't expect the enormity of their support. " said the 30-year-old.
"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.
"You try to find an inspiration and motivation wherever you can and I think my faith was a big part of that."
The 19-times capped Australian international lost two stone when in remission and he was so weak at the turn of the year that he struggled to lift his baby son Jeremih.
"Obviously when you have chemotherapy you lose a lot of weight and it was all about health first; 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." he added.
"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.
"It frustrated me but I knew it was a starting point for me and then it was about improving each day.”
"There were plenty of times when I thought it wouldn't happen again and I think that's why I'm so grateful to be able to run out each week.
"You sort of sit back and wonder how you performed but to actually be able to walk off safe and healthy is also important."
Leali'ifano is looking forward to his European debut tonight in an Ulster team that shows three personnel changes from the side that defeated Connacht in the PRO14 last week with second row Iain Henderson named as captain for the first time.
Sean Reidy and Robbie Diack join the British and Irish Lion in the scrum with Louis Ludik coming in on the right wing.
"The Champions Cup was definitely something we watched in the southern hemisphere; with all the different competitions joined in one and guys getting to play different teams definitely makes it exciting." said Leali-ifano.
"Speaking to (former Wasp) Charles Piutau about them, he really enjoyed it; they've definitely got some quality backs and quality individuals who are a big threat and we'll have to try and nullify their set-piece as well."