Christian Lealiifano with his wife Luga and son Jeremih before captain’s run training on ThursdayChristian Lealiifano is targeting a clash against the Free State Cheetahs for his Irish rugby debut this week in a strange twist to Super Rugby’s overhaul saga.
Lealiifano has started training with Ulster and will spend five months with the Belfast side as he continues his comeback after a battle with leukaemia.
But the playmaker has travelled around the world to play against an exiled Super Rugby team as the Cheetahs begin their new life in the Pro 14 competition.
The ARU and Western Force are set for another court-room showdown in Sydney this week in a bitter fight to axe the Perth side from Super Rugby.
Australia’s axing drama has dragged on for most of the year, but South Africa’s banished teams – the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings – secured their futures by linking with a European competition.
It means Lealiifano will be seeing familiar faces if he’s picked to play for Ulster in the opening-round clash against the Cheetahs at Kingspan Stadium on September 3 Australian time.
The ACT Brumbies and the ARU granted Lealiifano permission to join Ulster on a loan deal to help fast-track his return to rugby after playing just one professional game in the past 12 months.
Lealiifano’s agent, former Canberra Raiders captain Clinton Schifcofske, set up the move and Lealiifano is keen to make the most of his chance to play abroad.
“I lost 14 kilos in 13 days [when he was being treated for leukaemia] and it was a tough period working back up, getting back to the weight, getting back to full strength and running fitness,” Lealiifano said at a press conference in Belfast.
“I’m really grateful and humbled, humbled that a team still values what I can produce and what I can do.
“It was tough. I look back now and I’m quite proud. It’s hard, you never want to pat yourself on the back or anything, but to think of the journey I’ve had, and being here today, it’s something that I’m truly grateful for.
“There’s other people put the work in, and you owe them to put the work back out if that makes sense. It’s tough but rewarding to be back in a position to be playing rugby.
“…I’ve got only five months [at Ulster] so I want to maximise every opportunity I can. Next Friday [against the Cheetahs] is something that I’m aiming for already. If I’m playing or not, I’ll try to add value.”
Lealiifano will skip the National Rugby Championship, which starts next weekend, to try something new in Ireland.
He is expected to return to Brumbies training at the end of January, leaving limited preparation in Canberra for the Super Rugby season.
Lealiifano was a Brumbies co-captain this year despite playing only one game, while Sam Carter took the leadership reins in his absence.
New Brumbies coach Dan McKellar will delay his decision on who will take charge of the team next season.
Carter is expected to play for the Canberra Vikings in the opening NRC game against Queensland Country at Viking Park on Saturday.
The Vikings could also be bolstered by the return of Wallabies scrumhalf Joe Powell, who has been overlooked for selection in the first two Bledisloe Cup matches.
September 2: Canberra Vikings v Queensland Country at Viking Park, 1pm.
September 10: Canberra Vikings v Perth Spirit at Viking Park, 1pm.
September 17: Brisbane City v Canberra Vikings at UQ Rugby Club, Brisbane, 1pm.
September 23: NSW Country Eagles v Canberra Vikings at Bellevue Oval, Armidale, 1pm.
September 29: Canberra Vikings v Fiji at Viking Park, 7.30pm.
October 8: Melbourne Rising v Canberra Vikings at Frankston Park, Frankston, 1pm.
October 15: Canberra Vikings v Sydney Rays at Viking Park, 3pm.
October 29: Greater Sydney Rays v Canbera Vikings at TG Millner Oval, Sydney, 3pm.