Perspective: Why Christian Lealiifano is the rugby story of 2017

Brett McKay Columnist

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    With all that’s gone on in Australian rugby this year, it has been a bit harder and you’ve had to dig a bit deeper to find an uplifting story. Yesterday wasn’t one of those days.

    Speaking to the media for the first time this season, Brumbies flyhalf and Wallabies utility Christian Lealiifano started with his thank-yous – for they were many, varied, and for Lealiifano, really important.

    These were the people who had played a role – no matter how small – in getting him healthy again first and foremost, and then getting him back on the rugby field.

    Nearly 12 months to the day since his initial leukaemia diagnosis, yesterday was Lealiifano’s first real chance to offer his gratitude. And, of course, he nailed it. He thanked doctors, nurses, and medical specialists in both Canberra and Melbourne, and he thanked a couple new mates – AJ and Mick – with whom he shared a treatment ward and still speaks to weekly.

    He thanked his Wallabies and Brumbies teammates for their love and ongoing support; for dropping in, calling him, texts, and for bringing all kinds of things around – books, food, video games, anything – whether he wanted them or not. Anything to keep his mind off the ongoing treatment.

    He thanked the media for leaving him alone, essentially. The Brumbies had been very deliberate in not putting him up in front of the media once he was back around the club this season, to the point where for the first time in my short radio broadcasting career, I was told before the qualifying final against the Hurricanes that I specifically couldn’t speak to Lealiifano on the field post-match.

    This was another reason for the presser yesterday; he genuinely appreciated being able to speak when he was ready, and not just because we might have had a question for him a few months ago.

    And of course, he thanked his family. His sister was his bone marrow donor, playing a fourth grade game for Tuggeranong with his brother was a goal to tick off during his comeback, but everyone in his family played a part in his recovery in some shape or form. His young son, he admitted, was probably his biggest inspiration.

    “Even when I lost my hair and my eyebrows, he didn’t care. He just smiled at me,” Lealiifano said.

    Like many people who encounter major medical episodes, Lealiifano explained his perspective on life has changed – even more so than when he welcomed a child into the world.

    “One of the reasons I have been reluctant to make a big deal out of my story is that I am conscious of all the other people and families that are going through this terrible disease,” he explained.

    “Not everyone has had the outcome that I have had, and my heart goes out to all those fighting this battle.”

    Typically, when the spotlight was on him, Lealiifano was still thinking of others.

    Christian Lealiifano and Henry Speight (Photo: John Youngs photography)

    Photo: John Youngs photography

    Lealiifano explained that it will be another year before he and his specialists can properly say he’s ‘won’ his battle, and he’s well aware that it could return at any time.

    So now he’s just looking forward, and looking to find the best in any situation, admitting that he’s learnt firsthand how much energy you waste by getting stressed about something.

    He’s looking forward to getting some game time into his body – “I’ve still only played 40 minutes” – and though he diplomatically said the NRC is a realistic option, only paperwork in transit has prevented his looming short-term deal with Ulster in the newly-expanded Pro14 competition being officially announced.

    (Also, his name wasn’t in the Canberra Vikings NRC squad that was announced in another presser that immediately followed!)

    For next year, Lealiifano said he’s excited by the thought of reuniting in a Brumbies jersey with David Pocock and playing alongside Sam Carter, who he was supposed co-captain the side with in 2017. Carter was present at yesterday’s presser, fresh from a lone training session as he strives to remain ready for a Wallabies squad recall during the Rugby Championship.

    It was just nice to have been part of. Too often these days, press conferences are straight-down-the-line, vanilla answers to both loaded and bog-standard questions, useful for a TV or radio soundbite and not much else.

    But this was different; there were laughs and jokes, there was a little bit of emotion, but more than anything, this was one of the truly good guys of Australian rugby having a chat with us, happy to answer anything we threw at him for more than half an hour.

    And the big takeaway was perspective.

    Even when things look like they can’t get any worse, there is always one last fight to be had.

    Christian Lealiifano is now walking, running, passing, and kicking proof of that.

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.

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