A year ago Christian Lealiifano was the last to leave the training pitch at Brumbies HQ before leading his side to a 52-10 round one victory over the Hurricanes.
On Wednesday the club’s co-captain again lingered after most of his teammates, giving goal-kicking tips to rookie flyhallf Wharenui Hawera, but the season’s first match day will be very different for Lealiifano in 2017.
The 29-year-old Brumbies and Wallabies playmaker is in remission from leukaemia and has just returned to Canberra after spending the last six months receiving treatment in Melbourne after a bone-marrow transplant.
He won’t be starting at number 10 on Saturday night when the Brumbies take on the Crusaders in Christchurch to open their Super Rugby campaign, but the fact he’s even able to be at the ground will likely have a huge impact on the team’s performance.
“He’s the heart, soul and spirit of this place,” Lealiifano’s co-captain Sam Carter said at training in Canberra during the week.
“Seeing him back here is just huge."
Having just passed the 100-day landmark since surgery, Lealiifano made a surprise appearance at the Brumbies fan day last weekend, a way to show gratitude for the support he’s received from the Canberra faithful.
“It was an opportunity for them to be able to see me in person for the first time and a chance for me to get out and feel normal for a while; doing what I love; seeing kids smile and trying to grow the game,” he said.
“To see kids come up and wanting me to return… they’ve understood a bit about what’s going on, which has been remarkable.
“To have 12-year-old kids shaving their head to raise money; the awareness around it (the disease) is crazy. A big part of me wanted to come back to see these people and say thank you.”
After Saturday’s visit, Lealiifano started his recovery program in the gym at Brumbies HQ on Monday, ran part of the video session with the backs on Tuesday and played a mentoring role during the week’s field sessions.
“I’m just really enjoying the familiarity of what I’ve known for most of my life,” he said.
“This club has been a massive part of my life and we’ve always felt like a family here; not only through my leukaemia journey, but also my rugby journey. - Christian Lealiifano
“Being back around this group has been amazing, they’ve been unreal support throughout.”
Lealiifano, who played all but five minutes of the 2016 Super Rugby season, is still gauging just how much physical exertion his body can handle, but he’s clearly drawing strength from being back ‘at work’.
“I felt really fatigued, lethargic (after the fan day), and last night was similar, but to wake up every morning and to see my little son and my fiancée is special,” he said.
“You’ve got another day to do what I love doing and to come in here to see my teammates, my brothers, coaches and rugby family - you’re always going to find some energy to come in and be around.
“They’ve been great with checking in with how I’m feeling but, most of the time, I’m pretty energised when I come into this place.”
In an age of franchises, restructures and balance sheets, it’s easy to forget rugby is built on the principle of community, but Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham said Lealiifano’s illness has helped re-instill some of the code’s core values.
“There’s been a number of incidents off the field this year, (the passing of) Dan Vickerman is one, where you start to think about the players you’ve played with in the past and how connected you’ve been to them,” he said.
“We’ve spoken about it in this group a lot about the connection we need to have with one another and I don’t think it’s epitomised more than with what we’ve seen with Christian, both from his perspective, and the support that the players have given Christian.”
Lealiifano had frequent visits from teammates during his treatment, and Brumbies players used a new app to send him footage of training over summer; their co-captain providing feedback from his hospital bed in Melbourne.
“He’s incredibly inspirational with what he’s gone through and the way he’s kept in contact with everyone,” Larkham said.
“He’s been really connected with the playing group and to listen to him speak in front of the group, which he’s done over the last couple of days; he’s held in high regard, they are listening intently and they take everything in. - Stephen Larkham
“I think it goes both ways, the guys have been really motivating Christian but, at the same time, Christian’s been really motivating the guys by how strong he’s been in accepting their support and also offering a lot of support.”
Having come back from multiple shoulder reconstructions, a broken leg and an ankle reconstruction during his decade in Canberra, the club is realistic about Lealiifano’s chances of overcoming this unique challenge and adding to his 117 Super Rugby caps in 2017.
“He has a strong connection with the (Tuggeranong) Vikings club and depending on how he comes back - it’s been a long time out of the game for him - the reality will be that he’ll come back through club rugby in the local competition,” Larkham said.
For now, it feels like pretty much everyone in the nation’s capital is just delighted to see his ready smile back around the club’s training base in Bruce, but Lealiifano has no intention of being idle.
“Normally if I’m not playing, injured or whatever, it’s about trying to pass on a bit of knowledge to the younger guys or give feedback,” he said.
“It’s something I probably didn’t have a lot when I was coming through, I had to learn on my feet, so I just feel like if I can help those younger guys develop and reach their potential a bit quicker it will benefit the club and their own footy.”
Lealiifano’s understudy Wharenui Hawera will need all that knowledge on Saturday night; the 23-year-old flyhallf been named to make his Super Rugby debut against the Crusaders in Christchurch - a place the Brumbies haven’t won in 17 years.
It’s rumoured his mentor could be on the sideline, something which will no doubt help him through such a baptism of fire, and a sight to warm the heart of anyone who has ever had anything to do with Christian Lealiifano.