Long road brings Leali’ifano home to Samoa at World Cup

FILE PHOTO: Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2023 - Pool D - Samoa v Chile - Matmut Atlantique, Bordeaux, France - September 16, 2023 Samoa's Christian Leali'ifano in action REUTERS/Stephane Mahe/File Photo

SAINT-ETIENNE, France (Reuters) – Cancer survivor, former Wallaby and one of the nicest people in rugby, Christian Leali’ifano’s road to the World Cup has been longer and tougher than most but the flyhalf says he is finally at home in the Manu Samoa squad.

The 35-year-old is one of the beneficiaries of the 2021 eligibility law change that allows players to represent the nation of their heritage once they have been inactive at test level for three years.

Born in Auckland and raised in Melbourne, Leali’ifano played 26 tests for Australia from his inauspicious debut against the British & Irish Lions in 2013 to the quarter-final loss to England at the 2019 World Cup.

The playmaker made his debut for Samoa in a Pacific Nations Cup win over Japan in July, and contributed 16 points from the kicking tee as the Pacific islanders got their World cup Pool D campaign off to a winning start against Chile last week.

“Really, really special just to represent my home nation and my family,” he said on Wednesday ahead of their second game against Argentina on Friday.

“I think you never take them for granted when you get an opportunity to play the World Cup. I’m enjoying every day.

“It was fun (in 2019) but I’m home. That’s what I love. It just feels like home.”

Leali’ifano’s impish grin and abiding good humour are all the more impressive given the knockbacks he has endured since he first played schoolboy rugby for Australia in 2005.

A tattoo on his arm is a permanent reminder of his father Tavita, who he lost to liver cancer as a teenager, and the wispy thatch of hair on his head a legacy of his fight against Leukaemia from 2016.

A broken ankle cost him a spot in the Wallabies squad in 2012 and when he did get to wear the green and gold in the first Lions test the following year his debut was over in less than a minute after he was concussed tackling Jonathan Davies.

Always a thoroughbred pivot, Leali’ifano racked up 150 games for the ACT Brumbies in Super Rugby and returned to the now Pacific competition with Moana Pasifika last year after spells in Ireland and Japan.

Friday’s clash with Argentina will bring him up against Pumas coach Michael Cheika, who selected Leali’ifano to start at flyhalf for Australia at the 2019 World Cup.

“I’m excited for the challenge ahead,” he said. “Not only a former coach there in Michael Cheika, but just the challenge that lays ahead for this group to play a tier-one nation that historically did really well at a World Cup.”

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