"It's hard to put into words": Lealiifano on his inspirational journey to a first World Cup

Rugby World Cup
by Iain Payten

It’s a cliched question, usually offered up to get the prescribed answer. Did you ever imagine you’d be here?

Not in my wildest dreams, will come the answer from an athlete who - if they’re being remotely truthful - should admit they’ve been visualising this success for years. 

Forget wildest dreams, this is nightly dreams.

But standing in Qantas hangar 96 on Friday, Christian Lealiifano couldn’t have fudged the truth if he’d tried.

As a newly minted member of the Wallabies’ 2019 Rugby World Cup squad, Lealiifano was struggling to get through a handful of media interviews; largely because he was lost for words.

“I am just overwhelmed hey” Lealiifano said.

"It’s obviously been an incredible little journey.”

Lealiifano’s incredible journey to his first World Cup selection is well-known to all but no matter how many times it gets told, the Brumbies veteran fighting off cancer and returning to top-flight footy will never lose its power.

It is not just because Lealiifano now serves to as a point of inspiration and hope for fellow cancer sufferers and survivors, many of who are going through the same dark days Lealiifano and his family went through when he was first diagnosed with leukaemia in 2016.

It’s because this isn’t a trite redemption story of an athlete bouncing back from a knee injury or a sandpaper suspension.

It’s because many of the sliding doors of a cancer diagnosis are heartbreakingly cruel and unfair. And those are the doors many good people get given on a daily basis.

You ask Lealiifano if his goal of getting healthy and back on a field in Canberra ever extended to playing for Australia again.

“Man, no way hey. I have been asked a bit, was I doubtful this would ever happen - absolutely,” Lealiifano says.

"Your goal is just to get healthy again and be a father and a husband. Just to be healthy and, you know, alive. 

"To get back to this … man, yeah, I guess that’s why it so overwhelming. To look back and it has happened so quick. It is hard to put into words.”

Lealiifano was a semi-regular member of the Wallabies, and had just played in the England Test series, when he was diagnosed in August 2016. It shocked the rugby community to its core.

Lealiifano began treatment, and blessedly, a bone-marrow transplant with his sister Sally was successful. After 11 months of anxiety and treatment, Lealiifano emerged from the other side.

He returned to the Brumbies in a friendly game in June, 2017, in Singapore and, remarkably, returned for the Brumbies in a Super Rugby quarter-final the next month.

Lealiifano followed that up with a stint at Ulster in Ireland and for the last two years, has not only returned to the Brumbies but as captain, been in superb form. Career-best form, even.

This year, in just recognition for leading the Brumbies to an Australian conference title and Super Rugby semi-final, Lealiifano won a recall to the Wallabies, and what's more, has overtaken Bernard Foley for the starting no.10 role too.

"I still felt improvement in myself was there. And I guess that’s the athlete in us, just trying to always improve,” Lealiifano says.

"Because the time I had off, I had the time to reflect on what I could have done better. And my perspective obviously changed.

"And now when I look at footy I feel so relaxed and comfortable, because of what I have gone through. And hopefully that echoes through the boys as well and they feel that from me.

"I never thought I’d get back. But when I look back … yeah, it’s incredible.

"That’s why I just continued to try and improve, and when I started to play okay, then I thought “yeah, okay, maybe I can try and push for a spot”.

"I still never thought it would happen, to be honest, but I just just kept pushing hard and working hard and now I have got that reward. And the recognition is something I am really proud of.”

Unsurprisingly, Lealiifano says the last few years have changed him. For the better.

Gone is the ambitious kid who’d get lost in his own head when called up for the Wallabies. In his place is a man and a father who has a sense of where footy sits in life.

"I definitely feel it. I used to put so much stress and pressure on the preparation and the outcomes of what would happen, you’re always looking 'If I don’t do this or this or this’,” Lealiifano says.

"Whereas now it’s just about enjoying the moments, and that has helped relax me and made feel a bit more comfortable in what I am doing and helped me continue to believe in myself and what I do. 

"I guess the doubts that you have early on in your career, that’s just the athlete in you. People try to change that now with meditation and mindfulness and all that kind of stuff, but it has all definitely made me have a different outlook on it."

Lealiifano has earned his Wallabies selections on the field, and his World Cup spot too.

As Michael Cheika said recently, yeah he has a good back story but Lealiifano has been picked entirely on form.

And the Wallabies are benefiting as much as anyone from his composed presence and decade-long experience on the field, and in the no.10 hotseat. 

But his story is an inspiration to many, and Lealiifano is as proud of that as the footy.

"I guess when you hear that people are inspired by what I have achieved, it makes me really really proud,” he said. 

"But it’s not only me, it’s the work of all my family and the support they’ve given me, and the love they’ve shown me. And the rugby community too - all my friends and teammates and supporters. It is something that I cam’t really fathom at the moment.

"So for me, the way that I express that is to be the best I can be. And anyone who comes into contract with me feels that love and energy in and around me.

"Hopefully they can get a bit of a kick out of that as well.”

The Wallabies open their Rugby World Cup campaign against Fiji at the Sapporo Dome on Saturday September 21, kicking off at 2:45pm AEST, LIVE on Foxtel and Network Ten.