Lealiifano to make inspirational Wallabies return after three years in wilderness

The Rugby Championship
by Emma Greenwood

Christian Lealiifano's inspirational return to Test rugby is no one-off gesture, with Wallabies coach Michael Cheika saying he will do everything he can to help the flyhalf succeed and be a strong part of the team heading into the World Cup.

Lealiifano will don the gold jersey for the first time in 1125 days when he runs on to Suncorp Stadium to face Argentina on Saturday night.

But time alone is no measure of what he has overcome to regain his place at the top of the sport.

Winning his battle against leukaemia is a victory to which no sporting achievement can compare and it gives the 31-year-old a perspective that allows him to play with freedom that may shackle those who have little life experience outside the game.

But Lealiifano has earnt his spot on merit.

Christian Lealiifano will lead the Brumbies out on Saturday night. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart Walmsley

"He's had a great season in Super Rugby," Cheika said of the flyhalf's role in helping the Brumbies to within a win of the final.

"I think he's definitely deserved the opportunity now to play. He's had a lot of quality time spent since he's been in here, not just for himself, but the way he gets around his teammates and I think it's going to be a great opportunity for him to get out there and play"

Cheika said Lealiifano had been typically modest about his selection.

"As usual, he downplays everything," he said.

"I want to see Christian succeed. Selection is one thing, I really want to see him succeed in this position here and be a strong part of this team going into the World Cup and I'll do everything I can as Australian coach to help him make it."


Before returning to Australia from South Africa last week to continue rehabilitation on a lingering shoulder injury, Lealiifano said a Test return would be among his finest moments.

"It'd be right up there," he said.

"It's something I never thought would happen again,” he said.

  TEAM NEWS: LEALIIFANO, O'CONNOR TO MAKE TEST RETURNS

"Obviously, to even play footy, but to be back in the squad is something I'm really proud of and grateful as well, that they haven't picked me just because I'm back and healthy again, they've picked me, Cheik said, on form and the way I've been playing.

“I'm really proud of that, that it's not just a token selection, it's come off the back of some hard work and a lot of support in and around my family and my friends as well and teammates.”The Brumbies 10 will link with Will Genia in a revamped halves combination after Nic White and Bernard Foley started against the Springboks last week.

They feature in a new-look backline which also includes Marika Koroibete on the wing and Kurtley Beale at fullback in place of Dane Haylett-Petty and Tom Banks, who have both been rested this week.

 

Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani again start in the centres, with Cheika keen for their partnership to develop, while James O'connor and Matt To'omua have been named on the bench.

Scott Sio is the only change to the forward pack, returning from a hamstring injury that forced him out of last weekend's clash.

Cheika was unconcerned at mixing his halves again.

"(it was) just by the nature of the way it happened, I don't think there was any plan to it in particular," he said.

"They've got to be able to play with each other.

"They're all in the mix, they're good quality players, so you'd have to imagine they're going to be in the mix somewhere along the way.

 

"I know we talk about partnerships and combinations but at the end of the day, once they all put the gold jersey on, everyone's partnered with everyone else.

"That's the combination that counts when it's gold jersey next to gold jersey."

Lealiifano last played for the Wallabies in 2016, after missing World Cup selection in 2015.

And he has been through the wringer since.

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

Christian Lealiifano has been named in the Wallabies squad. Photo: RUGBY.com.au/Stuart Walmsley

"I had an opportunity maybe a year or so ago, before this season, to speak at length about a lot of things from the last World Cup selection (that he missed out on) to what's happening now and how I see him, from a coaching point of view.

"And what you can't deny is his form in Super Rugby.

"Take out all the other things - and obviously we know what he's achieved in his life - just take all that away and you look at the form and he's been playing good.

"And he deserves to be there."

The Wallabies host Argentina at Suncorp Stadium, kicking off at 7:45pm AEST, LIVE on Network Ten, FOX SPORTS, Kayo Sports  and via RUGBY.com.au RADIO.

Buy tickets here.