"No words": White and Lealiifano back together in a special Wallabies re-union

The Rugby Championship
by Iain Payten

This time last year Nic White and Christian Lealiiano were both a million miles away from the Bledisloe Cup.

Well, maybe not a million. But 15,000 kilometres covers it, with Lealiifano about to kick off a short stint with Ulster in Ireland and White about to enter his second season with the Exeter Chiefs in England.

Neither of the former Brumbies teammates had given up on their Wallabies dream, but if you’d have sought odds from a bookie on them being the halves in 2019’s opening Bledisloe Cup game, you could probably have written your own ticket.

Throw in James O’Connor - this time last year running up stairs in northern England on the injury comeback trail - playing no.13 and said bookie would probably have suspended betting.

But such is Michael Cheika’s desire to replicate his successful formula in 2015 by stocking his squad with experienced greybeards, on Saturday night White and Lealiifano will play their first game together since the 2015 Super Rugby semi-finals.

It will be their first Test match start together since September 2013, against the Springboks in Cape Town, and it’s fair to say neither believed they’d be in this position, particularly given Lealiifano’s well-publicised battle with cancer.

"It is [surreal],” White said. 

"We’d spoke about it before I even came back that we didn’t think we’d play together. 

"We’re pretty close off the field. I told him I can’t really put it into words, it’s pretty special to be able to just on the back of what he’s gone through play together again.

“It’s exciting and that sentiment is nice but we’ll put it aside when we go out and train. For now it’s business.”

The time-worn combination of White and Lealiifano - and even with bench back Matt Toomua - is something Cheika is no doubt hoping will prove valuable.

The Wallabies coach has certainly been impressed with White since he returned from England to have a crack at making the World Cup squad. 

White has, it would seem, booked a ticket already. He’s not only still around the squad - and former favourite son Nick Phipps isn’t - but Cheika has put White back into the no.9 shirt ahead of Will Genia, who was the Wallabies’ best in Brisbane last start.

"Nic played very well against South Africa,” Cheika said. 

"Will came out and returned serve the next week and it’s tough going.

"I’m not going to say Nic won it on this or the other because they’re both performing very well.

"What I like is they’re working hard together off the field, at training, as a unit with Joey Powell.

"They understand the roles they have for each game according to the selection.”

White and Lealiifano were both part of the 2015 Rugby Championship squad coached by Cheika - and White banked a decisive try and long-range goal to help beat the All Blacks in Sydney. 

But neither player made the cut for the World Cup.

"It’s been very good to have Nic back around the team and stuff he brings off the field,” Cheika said.

"He’s got a different type of experience now, having played in Europe.

"He’s been a valuable addition and I’m sure he’ll enjoy playing this weekend.

"He’s been waiting a few years to get out and play another Bledisloe, last one in 2015 where he picked up a try in Sydney so it’ll be good to have him back out there.”

After making another four changes to his starting side, it’s hard to get strong reads on Cheika’s preferences for the World Cup but consecutive selections of Lealiifano over Foley show there could be a changing of the guard happening.

Foley’s lack of versatility means he’s not considered a bench player, so he either starts or sits out.

"Again tight but Christian did his job last weekend,” Cheika said.

"It was his first game back in international colours for a while, he distributed well, made his tackles, took his kicks his goal.

"It’s very tight and it’s good we’ve got competition, with Matt To’omua as well.

"A different style of player so it’s making it tough for selection.

"Players are pushing each other hard at training and helping each other when one is selected and one is not.

"That’s an important part of the puzzle.”

Cheika explained why he’d given Tolu Latu another start, too, after the ill-disciplined NSW hooker seemed like he’d blown his World Cup chances when charged with drink driving in May.

Latu was subsequently convicted, fined and suspended for four games by Rugby Australia.

Latu has a history of getting into strife on the field, too, and has been baited into cards by the All Blacks.

But Cheika says he believes Latu is worthy of another shot.

"He’s trained very hard in a lot of the areas he’s got to work on,” he said.

“Number one is probably fitness, he’s pushed himself very hard.

"His attitude has been excellent and against Argentina there was many times where he was on the ball and the ref called him off the ball and he got straight off it.

"I think that shows he’s starting to understand that he’s got skill but he’s got to know when to use it and when not to.

"An opportunity is there but again, competition, with Folau who’s been playing OK as well.

"And then you’ve got young Jordan in the wings, Polota-Nau should be back available for selection in the next week or so as well.

"It’s about opportunities you get and taking them.”

Cheika said Jordan Petaia had trained with the team this week and would potentially be in contention for selection next week in the return Bledisloe Cup clash in Auckland.