Lealiifano back on top after cancer battle
WHEN Christian Lealiifano's inspiring comeback from leukaemia was in its infancy, 25 friends and family cheered him just for running water bottles at Suncorp Stadium.
On Saturday night, a moment to rival any of the great Australian sporting comebacks will unfold when he plays flyhalf for the Wallabies against Argentina on the same turf.
Cycling queen Anna Meares was a 2009 nominee for the Laureus World Sports Award for Comeback of the Year when she won an Olympic silver medal just months after breaking her neck in a nasty track spill.
It's the selfless energy he always gives to others which also puts Lealiifano on that level because every player and fan is willing him success on Saturday.
Lealiifano's former Brumbies coach Steve Larkham revealed the three goals set during the life-changing 18 months in 2016-17 when walking out of hospital was the first step.
Larkham was coach in 2017 when Lealiifano ran the water in that Brumbies-Reds game at Suncorp Stadium after a false start on playing.
"Christian set himself three goals ... get back to playing rugby, to play with his brothers in Canberra and, third, to be the best he can be playing at the highest level again," Larkham said.
Lealiifano credits his sister with "giving me the gift of life again" through a bone-marrow transplant. Lealiifano, 31, is proud that this chance as the oldest Wallaby to start at flyhalf since Larkham (2007) is not a "well done" pat for beating illness.
"Cheik said, it's on form and the way I've been playing - I'm really proud of that, that it's not just a token selection," Lealiifano said last week.
Coach Michael Cheika is right behind Lealiifano as a player and the cement he adds to the team bond.
"As usual he downplays everything," Cheika said of the humble Lealiifano's miracle return.
"Selection is one thing after a great Super Rugby season but I really want to see him succeed in his position here and be a strong part of this team going into the World Cup.
"I'll do everything I can as his coach to help him make it."
Bringing in Kurtley Beale at fullback provides a second playmaker to unlock the best from big gain-line runners Samu Kerevi and Tevita Kuridrani in the centres.
"They're good friends (the centres), they look together and I want to give that pairing an opportunity to flourish," Cheika said.
A sharp Beale is excited about playing fullback, where he first started in a Test in 2010, after playing centre and No.10 last year.
"I'm certainly enjoying fullback and it enables me to pop in and around the rucks or hold out wide and sniff out opportunities for our big ball runners," Beale said.
The Wallabies need to smarten up first and end waste like the bombed a try on full-time last year when losing 23-19 to the Pumas on the Gold Coast.
Two more tries were butchered against South Africa last weekend.
"Making opportunities isn't good enough, taking them is what it's all about," Cheika said.
"I believe we are building nicely. With the work being put in and earning what we get, the players will be too invested not to take those opportunities."
Cheika said the five changes to the starting team were strategic.
"Obviously, we want to have a look around with a lot of players committed in training and pushing hard for selection," he said.
"We wanted to keep some combinations going and then bring in some other players to see their effect on the team but when it all boils down, it's go out there and perform Saturday night and win the Test match."
WALLABIES: Kurtley Beale, Reece Hodge, Tevita Kuridrani, Samu Kerevi, Marika Koroibete, Christian Lealiifano, Will Genia, Isi Naisarani, Michael Hooper (c), Lukhan Salakai-Loto, Rory Arnold, Izack Rodda, Sekope Kepu, Folau Faingaa, Scott Sio. Reserves: Tolu Latu, James Slipper, Taniela Tupou, Rob Simmons, Luke Jones, Nic White, Matt Toomua, James O'Connor.