Representative Honours: Australian Schools 2004, Australian Under-19s 2006, Australian Under-21s 2006-07; UK/Europe 2013
Christian Leali’ifano excelled for the Qantas Wallabies in 2013, playing in 13 out of a possible 15 Tests in his debut season, scoring 124 points in the process.
It was a breakthrough year for Leali’ifano although he did enjoy one of the stranger international Test debuts on record, where his involvement ended just 42 seconds into the first Test of the series against The British & Irish Lions when his head made contact with Lions and Welsh centre Jonathan Davies’ hip while affecting a tackle.
While the blow could have cost him his spot for the remainder of the series, the 26-year-old recovered sufficiently to resume his role at inside centre with aplomb in the second Test
He went on to play every minute of the remaining two Tests, also taking on the goal-kicking responsibilities, where he contributed 22 points over the series, hitting every one of his eight shots at goal sweetly to establish a Test goal-kicking record of 100% at the time.
His most crucial shot at goal came in the second Test, when he converted Adam Ashley-Cooper’s 75th minute try, six metres in from touch to secure Australia’s 16-15 win and tie the series.
His strong form didn’t end there with Leali’ifano maintaining his stranglehold on the number 12 jersey until injury struck against Argentina in Rosasio and forced him to miss Australia’s third and final Bledisloe Test against New Zealand.
ACT Brumbies teammate Matt Toomua made the most of his good friend’s misfortune to earn selection at inside centre for that match and the beginning of the Spring Tour before sustaining an injury himself.
That allowed Leali’ifano to earn his spot in the midfield back, initially at outside centre against Scotland before returning to his more accustomed role for Australia’s final game of the tour against Wales, where he accumulated 20 individual points courtesy of one try, three conversions and three penalty goals.
Test success capped off a remarkable year for Leali’ifano, who also excelled during a Super Rugby campaign that ended with a narrow Final loss to the Chiefs. He was one of the best on ground for the Brumbies in the Final, scoring all of their points in their 27-22 loss.
A week earlier Leali’ifano struck four penalty goals and two conversions to help guide the ACT Brumbies to an historic 26-23 semi-final win over the Pretoria Bulls at Loftus Versfeld, handing the South Africans their first-ever Super Rugby finals defeat at home.
In all, Leali’ifano had an impressive Super Rugby season with the boot, finishing second overall in points, with 233, second only to Bulls and Springboks flyhalf Morne Steyn on 248. He finished the season with a 79.2% success rate in the goal-kicking department (80 kicks from 101 attempts).
Undoubtedly the hard luck story of 2012, where he was a virtual certainty for the Qantas Wallabies June squad, and quite probably a Test start, before being cut down by a season-ending ankle injury.
The Auckland-born talent was a key figure in the 2012 resurgence by the baby Brumbies squad, where he rated as the team’s most experienced back. Having already appeared for Australia at Schools, Under-19 and Under-21 level, as well as playing for the Australian Sevens, Leali’ifano had long loomed as a potential Wallaby, and his form last year seemed to confirm the fact.
So influential was he, after being moved to flyhalf to replace the injured Matt Toomua, Leali’ifano was running away with the voting in the Australian Super Rugby Player of the Year award, only being over-taken two rounds before the end of the competition – despite his participation having been ended in week 11!
As well as the additional dimension Leali’ifano provided for the Brumbies by his willingness to attack the line from first phase while being sound with his ball maintenance in contact; he also produced a new level of consistency with his goal-kicking, having worked diligently on this aspect of his game after an inconsistent past.
Born in Auckland but raised in Melbourne, Leali’ifano made his debut for the Brumbies against the Crusaders in the opening round of 2008; last year surpassing a half century of appearances in the competition. He appeared in every match for the Brumbies in his maiden year, scoring a key try when the team beat the Blues in Auckland for the first time since 2004.
His overall performance saw Leali’ifano recognised as the Brumbies Most Improved Player for that year, which built on an impressive showing the previous year for the Canberra Vikings in the sole season of the Australian Rugby Championship.
One consistent aspect of the Leali’ifano career he will be keen to put behind him is his run of injury. He was troubled by hamstring problems in 2009, a knee complaint a year later, a dodgy ankle in 2011 and then wrecked his ankle totally last term. Despite the disruption, he has continued to broaden his experience at every opportunity. This includes a stint for Waikato in the New Zealand NPC in 2010, where the talented playmaker appeared for the province on 15 occasions, teaming up with Brumbies team-mate Henry Speight in 11 of those matches (with the Fijian-born winger being recruited by the Brumbies after he excelled for the New Zealand side).