Playing behind one of, if not the most dominant forward pack in the Buildcorp National Rugby Championship in 2015, University of Canberra Vikings flyhalf Christian Lealiifano thinks he’s got it easy at the moment.
After a win earlier this season, Lealiifano jokingly told me he just lets his very impressive forwards do their job and rumble forward, and then gets the yellow Gilbert in the attacking zone and plays wide.
“I remember that,” Lealiifano laughed, talking to www.BuildcorpNRC.com.au this week.
“I still probably stay true to that, the forwards have been fantastic all year. They’ve all worked hard, and not just the Brumbies guys, the club players have probably impressed me the most. The club guys have all stepped up, and they’ve really impressed me with the way they’ve adapted to not only the footy, but also the intensity of it.
“This competition is designed for those guys to be able to step up, and as a backline player, it’s good to see all the backs happy with the ball we’re getting. And obviously, it doesn’t happen all the time. The last time we played Brisbane City, we were put under pressure a little bit at set piece, but when we get it right, I guess any team would go well with that kind of platform up front.”
2015 has been a really important year on the field for Lealiifano, probably the first season in the last few in which he’s really been able to string together a solid amount of games, after being somewhat injury-inhibited in recent seasons. With that prolonged run of games, his confidence has only grown as the season has gone on.
“Absolutely, although perhaps not just the confidence, but also the enjoyment of it. Coming back from injury is always tough, and you’re in that high pressure situation where you always need to be at your peak, or you need to better than you were before you were injured, and that takes time.
“I think I just caught up in the pressure a little bit, and maybe trying to fulfil other people’s expectations, rather than just enjoying the game for what it is. It’s something I’ve reflected on over the last couple of years, and I’m definitely now enjoying just running around and playing footy again, no matter where it is. You could be the World Cup, or running around in club footy, or in the NRC. To be able to do what I do, and now that I’m getting a bit older, I’m just grateful to be able to do what I love doing.”
And this is a really important point Lealiifano makes, because he’s lived that to the letter in 2015. Over the last six months or so, he’s played out a heartbreaking Super Rugby finals campaign with the Brumbies, and he’s been in and out of the Wallabies set up (he toured Argentina for an injured Matt Giteau). He managed to play a couple of games at fullback, of all positions, for his ACT club side, Tuggeranong, and now has been front and centre on this Vikings’ quest for a maiden NRC title.
It’s easy to see why he’s able to stay so grounded and perform at a consistently good level, regardless of the jersey he’s wearing at the time.
“Yeah, there have been lots of ups and downs, and some moments of more pressure than others, but to be able to acknowledge those moments and be able to move forward has been the biggest growth point for me.
“And then, yeah, just enjoying whatever moment I am in, whether that’s being in the Wallabies setup and pushing to improve there, or being in this NRC setup I’m in currently, I’m just constantly enjoying the people around me and what we’re trying to do. It’s something I’ve really enjoyed learning and growing along the way, and improving too.
“Having said that, I’m sort of happy this is the last game of the year and I can bit of a break now. It’s been pretty full on. I think it was January 5 when ‘Bernie’ (Brumbies Head Coach, Stephen Larkham) took us to Thredbo and had us running up Mt.Kosciuszko, and now it’s end of the October. It’s been a bloody long year!”
If there is one aspect of his game that perhaps hasn’t quite come back to its pre-injury levels, it would be Lealiifano’s goalkicking. Where during the 2013 British & Irish Lions series, it seemed Lealiifano couldn’t miss from anywhere, his returns in 2014 and 2015 have been well short of those sharp-shooting glory days. In 2015, Lealiifano’s success rate through Super Rugby and the Buildcorp NRC has hovered around 73%.
“Yeah, I’d agree with that. It’s still a work in progress; I’ve had to tweak my approach and my run-up late in the year (he’s removed that backward step after being charged down a few times), and it’s been an adjustment to those things. I’m consistently working hard at it, and having every ‘Joe Blow’ telling me how to kick... it’s honestly quite tough when you are putting in all the work to try and figure out what works well for you and what doesn’t. When I’d built that reputation for hardly missing, when I started missing a few, people started scratching their heads.
“It does feel like it’s improving though, and Damien Hill, my kicking coach says ‘you’re back’. I’m hitting the ball well again, and it’s just finding that consistency to be back mentally too. I agree that it’s probably not where I’d want it to be, but I feel like I’m heading in the right direction. It’s a constant work in progress and the repetition of doing it well.”
His general play certainly isn’t inhibited any more, though, and throughout this NRC, Lealiifano has been a constant threat to defences, ghosting through lines and setting his outside backs up with his wonderful passing game. And he’s clearly enjoying playing in the Vikings no.10, too, after operating at inside centre for the Brumbies and in Wallabies camps.
“Yeah, definitely. It’s good to run around at five-eighth to control the play and get a few more touches, but for me it’s just about playing wherever I can to assist the team, and to put my take on the game. Last weekend felt really good, and the forwards set a great platform, and it allowed me to use all the options and play the sort of style I like to play, moving the ball and taking on the line.”
Lealiifano knows how tough a prospect Brisbane City will be at Ballymore on Saturday - “they’ve been fantastic all year” - but he’s excited about the prospect of this group of players finally claiming some silverware after being so close to real success over the past few seasons with the Brumbies.
“Most of the guys have been in the Brumbies set-up for a few years now, and I think you do need some kind of reward for all the effort and the work you put in. When you’re working every week to find improvements, or even looking to progress on to the next year, there’s some opportunity there to take some momentum and some reward into next year.
“I haven’t tasted a lot of success at Super Rugby and Brumbies level, I suppose the most I’ve had is at John I Dent Cup level (ACT club rugby premierships), and so to win at NRC level would be massive.
“Everyone looks at it as a competition to fill in the time while the Wallabies are away, but I feel that it’s a competition that is unearthing a lot of new talent, and local talent, and an opportunity for contracted players to keep progressing. That kind of reward for us or for Brisbane City would be massive.”
Click here to buy tickets for Saturday's 2015 Buildcorp National Rugby Championship Grand Final between Brisbane City and UC Vikings at Ballymore Stadium.