Christian Lealiifano has overcome leukaemia and reignited his rugby career with renewed purpose, writes TOM DECENT.
The warning bells began ringing when a hooker, Robbie Abel, continued to out-run a playmaker, Lealiifano, during a fitness session in mid-2016 at Brumbies headquarters.
Team doctor Stephen Freeman, noticing how he was struggling, instructed the utility back to have some blood tests.
Within hours, the then 28-year-old, who less than two months earlier had turned out for Australia against England, was rushed to hospital. At the time, no one could have foreseen the devastating news about to follow.
By the same token, when the rugby world heard that Lealiifano, a 19-Test Wallaby at the time, had been diagnosed with leukaemia, few would have believed he would eventually return not only to playing but within touching distance of an international comeback.
This is a heart-warming rugby yarn about a guy, as humble as you will ever meet, making the most of an opportunity he never thought he would have.
Immediately after being diagnosed, treatment began. An emotional Lealiifano told his shattered family ‘we’ll get through this together’ and that his only option was to fight for his life because of his son.
‘Jeremih needs a dad and that’s my job.’
From there, Lealiifano began chemotherapy. His sister Sally was found to be a match for a bone-marrow transplant and he started the grind of remission over the space of a few months in Melbourne. The hard work was only just beginning. While this was happening, there was an outpouring of support from the rugby community all over the world. Australian players, including his international teammates David Pocock, Will Genia, Matt Toomua and Matt Giteau, shaved their heads in a show of solidarity to their mate.
While most people would expect a rugby return to be one of the last things on Lealiifano’s mind, that is exactly what was motivating him day in, day out.
‘I like to dream big and think I can play next season,’ said Lealiifano two months after being diagnosed. He gave himself a ‘30%’ chance of playing in the 2017 Super Rugby season.
Thankfully for Lealiifano, doctors were pleased the progress of his rehabilitation. After numerous tests and meetings, he was given the green light for a return to training but even then, the arduous task of getting Lealiifano’s body ready for the rigours of Super Rugby was about to begin. There was a pleasant surprise in February of 2017 when Lealiifano was named Brumbies co-captain for the season ahead.
While there was no timeline on his return, coach Stephen Larkham, the former Wallabies five-eighth, felt it appropriate to put a title next to the name of a player who meant so much to not only the club but to a tight-knit Canberra community shattered by the news of his illness. Brumbies staff were surprised how quickly Lealiifano was able to get his body back to full health and word filtered through the rugby fraternity that a comeback was on the horizon.
Just 330 days after having his life turned upside down, Lealiifano was back on a rugby field. The fact it was a fourth grade match for the Tuggeranong Vikings in Canberra’s local competition was insignificant.
Lealiifano ran out next to his brother Lix – for the first time in a decade – and some of his closest mates as mother Mafa and other family members watched on, brimming with pride while witnessing something they thought might not happen again.
‘Sport was put aside today,’ said teammate Beau Mokotupu. ‘The feeling to run out with him again was something special. It was bigger than sport. It was the end of one part of the journey … it was just like back in the day.’
Three weeks later, Lealiifano was picked on the Brumbies’ bench for their quarter-final against the Hurricanes in Canberra and the build-up to the match was intense. A good crowd in the nation’s capital braved chilly winter conditions to watch one of their favourite sons back in Brumbies colours. Although the Brumbies lost 35-16, Lealiifano got on the park for 40 minutes and was involved vigorously enough to require stitches afterwards.
The greatness of what he had achieved was not lost on anyone at the ground and those who had followed a remarkable story of tenacity. Brumbies players spoke about how their disappointment of losing the match was erased by seeing Lealiifano in action.
‘To think that 12 months ago Christian was in hospital with tubes in him and getting chemotherapy … wow,’ said Brumbies prop Scott Sio. ‘That’s the thing, this game was bigger than rugby.
‘Christian has alluded to the fact that rugby is such a small part of our lives. I guess things get put in perspective.’
By the time the 2018 Vodacom Super Rugby season had rolled around, Lealiifano was back in the Brumbies starting team at No 10 and his comeback all but complete.
‘It’s not just a normal game any more,’ said Lealiifano. ‘It’s an absolute bonus and a blessing to be playing footy again.’
With a new lease on life, Lealiifano flourished for the Brumbies, even though the club did not qualify for the 2018 finals. His name was barely mentioned when talk came to Wallabies selection, given that Bernard Foley was in the hot seat at No 10 and Matt Toomua and Kurtley Beale were ahead in the pecking order in the eyes of coach Michael Cheika.
Then it happened. After orchestrating the Brumbies’ progress to the 2019 semi-finals, Cheika, director of rugby Scott Johnson and selector in Michael O’Connor came to the conclusion that Lealiifano’s form was irresistible and that he had to be picked in the Wallabies Rugby Championship squad. It was the first time in more than three years he had been part of the Australian set-up.
Speaking before injury ruled him out of the Rugby Championship opener at Ellis Park, Lealiifano was asked how wearing a gold jersey once again would rank among his career highlights.
‘It’d be right up there,’ he said. ‘It’s something I never thought would happen again. Obviously, to even play footy, but to be back in the squad is something I’m really proud of and grateful for as well.’
To say Lealiifano’s inclusion at the World Cup is not a genuine selection would be wide of the mark and that was made crystal clear to him by Wallabies officials.
‘They haven’t picked me just because I’m back and healthy again,’ Lealiifano said. ‘They’ve picked me on form and the way I’ve been playing. I’m really proud of that. It’s come off the back of some hard work and a lot of support in and around my family and my friends as well as teammates.’
And what a glorious sight it was to see Lealiifano in a Wallabies training shirt motoring past a group of puffed hookers in Johannesburg. He is back with a smile on his face … and rugby is better off for it.