Lealiifano story inspirational but Wallabies' recall earned on form: McCaffrey

The Rugby Championship
by Iain Payten in Japan

Like in the Naked City, there are eight million stories about Christian Lealiifano's character and Locky McCaffrey tells one of them.

"When I first rocked up at the 'Brums' (in 2014), this is the kind of guy he is, we were in Melbourne and we were versing the Rebels in round one or two, and he had these nice red sneakers on and I said “oh, they’re cool sneakers bruz”,” McCaffrey says.

"I didn’t think anything of it but then I rocked up Monday morning to training and they were in my locker. He'd given me his brand new red sneakers mate.

"It’s just a little story but that’s the type of guy he is. He didn’t know me at all, just a new bloke coming into the Brumbies. And I don’t doubt he did that stuff for everyone.”

Lealiifano was last week named in the Wallabies’ Rugby Championship squad, and is currently in Johannesburg training with Michael Cheika’s troops ahead the first Test against South Africa on Sunday week. 

After a stellar Super Rugby season, the 31-year-old has a good chance to play in his 20th Test at Ellis Park, which would be his first since 2016. 

It was soon after the third Test against England that Lealiifano was diagnosed with leukaemia, forcing a 11-month absence from rugby.

No group cheered harder about Lealiifano’s selection last week than his Brumbies club-mates and not just because of his remarkable return from his illness, which now sees the “cancer survivor” angle appear prominently in media around the world.

That focus is entirely justified and serves a great purpose, says McCaffrey, but he adds that the Brumbies are equally proud of Lealiifano because the deserved Wallabies call-up was based on purely on his talent and leadership.

"He has a great story, for sure” McCaffrey said. 

"But his Wallabies selection has been based on form, and his form this year - I don't want to poke my nose into selection - but in terms of best five-eighths, he has been the form playmaker in Australian rugby in 2019.

"Not even just his on-field form, but his leadership is one of the main reasons why the Brumbies finished on top of the conference and made the semi-finals. He is just a great footballer.”

It's the same message Cheika gave last week when he revealed his 34-man squad, and said Lealiifano's form had been irresistible.

"I'm not the expert to speak on what he's been through, because only he knows that and his family," Cheika said.

"Obviously from a coaching point of view, what you can't deny is his form in Super Rugby at the end of the day.

"You take out all the other things because we know what he's achieved in his life. You just take all that away and he's been playing good and he deserves to be there."

Returning to the Wallabies on merit only adds to the inspiration of his fightback story, McCaffrey added.

"You can’t begrudge people for talking about that, because it is a remarkable story and a journey,” he said. 

"It is something that athletes and people in the wider public who are facing the same battle, it’s remarkable how many people take inspiration from Christian. 

"I have got a friend who has gone through cancer and he wanted to meet him, so Christian caught up with him for lunch, just gave him his time to have a chat and go through each other’s story. 

"For a rugby punter out there, for him to have that experience he was in tears at the end of it.”

McCaffrey spoke to RUGBY.com.au from Japan, where is about to start a six-month stint with Kyuden before returning to the Brumbies for 2020.

It is the sixth professional club that McCaffrey has played for, after a globe-trotting career so far. 

He says the last few seasons at the Brumbies have been unlike any other club in terms of squad brotherhood, and McCaffrey credits Lealiifano with that tight bond.

"It’s people like ‘Bruzzy' that have transformed the Brumbies from a strong successful team, to a strong tightknit family as well,” McCaffrey said.

"All teams say they’re families etc, but I have played for a fair few in my career and nothing comes close to the Brums. Anyone who comes down will say the same thing and it’s people like Bruzzy that create that. There are a lot of good rugby players who come through the Brumbies but I don’t think anyone has had such a significant impact on the culture, in that family sense.

"To be a good leader you have to put good performances on the paddock and I was so happy when he got in the Wallabies squad, because he deserved it this year.”

Lealiifano will jostle with Bernard Foley, Matt Toomua and Quade Cooper for playmaking duties in the Rugby Championship, and at the World Cup.

And McCaffrey sees no reason why the recently departed Brumbies captain shouldn’t be able to carry his strong form into the Test arena for the Wallabies.

“You look at the best tens around the traps and they have got everything,” he said. 

"That’s the same as Bruz.

"Throughout his career he has been one of the top goalkickers in the comp, his all around kicking game short and long is good, his vision is second to none and then his passing game is beautiful. He always puts it on a platter for you.

'And last of all, in terms of individual play, his defence. Tens get criticised for their defence but I don’t 

Think you could ever criticise Bruzzy for not getting in front of blokes and stopping them,

"He puts his body into it and his shoulders have probably taken a battering but as far as someone you want at first recover, he ticks a lot of boxes doesn’t he?”

Despite his name not being among them, McCaffrey said he was stoked to see 10 Brumbies named in the Wallabies’ 34-man squad for the Rugby Championship trip to South Africa.

"It was awesome. There are obviously the shoe-ins like Alan and Slips and those guys, but I thought guys like Joey (Powell) and Banksy (Tom Banks) finished the season with red-hot form. It’s good to see guys like that be rewarded."

McCaffrey was mentioned as possible Wallabies bolter throughout the season after turning in strong form for the Brumbies, but he said he didn’t pay too much notice.

"I didn’t get my hopes up, to be fair. First of all there’s no point worrying about that stuff but I also thought that my game probably didn’t suit what the Wallabies want to do at the moment, with big ball-carrying eights,” he said.

"My game isn’t everyone’s favourite. Some people like the different vision and ball-playing I bring to the game and some people don’t, and that’s cool.

"It’s all good. I genuinely hope they go well, for Australian rugby in general, it’s important they do well in the next few Tests and in the World Cup. We are all 100 per cent behind those boys.”