The sudden death nature of Super Rugby finals qualification is unquestionably exciting for fans, if not perhaps a little nerve-inducing for those whose favourite team is involved in the knockout phases. But for the 23 players who take the field for each team, it also represents a big dose of the great unknown.
In the case of the Brumbies, who this week take on the Jaguares in Argentina at 9:00am (AEST) on Saturday, there’s the definite of a long flight back to Australasia to look forward to, but on what terms? With their season concluded (if the Jaguares win), with a trip to Christchurch to play the Crusaders in the Grand Final (if both the Crusaders and Brumbies win their Semi Finals), or with a trip back to Canberra to host the Hurricanes in the big dance (if they defeat the Crusaders)?
Throw in end-of-season departures for long-serving stalwarts, and the waters are muddied further still, and in the case of the Brumbies squad who have travelled to South America, Rory Arnold (France), Sam Carter (Ireland), Christian Lealiifano (Japan), Leslie Lualualei-Makin (Japan) and Henry Speight (Brisbane) may not know whether they’re lacing up for their side for the final time.
In Christian’s case, after first arriving at the Brumbies some thirteen years ago, it’s a case of either 150 and out, or 150 and one to get. This week, he follows Stephen Moore, George Smith, Nathan Sharpe, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Ben Alexander, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Kurtley Beale as the only Australian players to reach such a huge milestone.
It’s a truly remarkable achievement from the 2016 RUPA Medal For Excellence winner, who has also represented the Wallabies in 19 Test matches as well as playing for Waikato in New Zealand’s ITM Cup, Ulster in the Pro14 (and European Champions Cup), and for Toyota in Japan’s Top League. He will again return to Japan, to play for NTT Communications.
To celebrate Christian’s 150 games and incredible career, we caught up with some of his former teammates. Today, we hear from Adam Ashley-Cooper and Mark Gerrard, who both played with him when he made his Super Rugby debut in 2008; tomorrow, we'll hear from Stephen Hoiles, Ben Alexander and Christian himself.
On behalf of the entire current and past playing group we salute you, Christian, and here’s to hopefully reaching 151!
Adam Ashley-Cooper (as told to RUPA):
“I remember in his first couple of years that his passion for growth, to become a better Rugby player, and his passion for life instantly shone through. If you speak to anybody about Christian, his energy and his enthusiasm are things that they’ll highlight, and just how important that is for a Rugby team. I just remember loving being around him, and even as a young bloke he had a big impact on the team immediately.
“Back in the day, the senior boys ruled the roost and didn’t necessarily give a lot of early love to the young guys; you had to earn it. The way he approached the game, training and his personal development saw the older guys take to him very quickly. He was also a spiritual leader pretty quickly, even if he didn’t have that C next to his name, and a lot of guys turned to him when they needed to speak to somebody.
"In a team environment you need to be able to banter with the people around you, and if you don’t have that quality you struggle, but he had that and he became the glue in the end and a very strong figure in that team.
“Every 10 I have played with has been different, and that’s the beauty of Christian; he brings his own influence to that role, and he is both resilient and tough. The way he can take on the line, and the way he can defend in that channel, stand out. I have experienced that playing with him, which was always great because you could trust what he was going to give you and he’s a very skilful player who has only gotten better over time, and playing against him I have run down that channel a couple of times and he’s put some solid hits on me and felt the shoulder a few times!
“There’s absolutely no surprise at all he’s come this far. Somebody who turns up every day with his mindset is always destined to achieve great things, and that resilience really shaped Christian and allowed him to get through the chapter with his health which rocked the Rugby world – and for him to come out of that was nothing short of inspirational.
“He’s just one of the absolute greats. That term can get thrown around lightly sometimes, but he truly is.
“I’m really tight with Brus and I felt an instant connection with him in Canberra and have held that all the way through. Even when I signed with the Waratahs, which because of that rivalry is usually quite a sour departure, Christian held that connection with me.
“My message to him is that I am extremely proud of him with what he has achieved in life and the man that he has turned out to be. He is such a great role model for not just Rugby players but humans in general, and he’s a guy you can draw a lot of positivity from. Go out there and have the best time mate.”
Mark Gerrard (as told to RUPA):
“We recognised that Christian’s skillset stood out and spoke volumes of his capabilities, and that group of players back then noticed that he instantly embraced both the culture of the Club and the expected professionalism of Rugby. You knew he was in it for the long haul.
“The Brumbies environment is quite unique and very supportive of one another, and we were committed to giving him the platform to express himself within that structure. It’s testament to him as a Captain that he still encourages that individualism within the collective. As fellow Islanders, we were really committed to making sure we helped to nurture some of these guys when they were coming through and that we showed love and respect to them, and you’ve seen them do that for the next generation who respect him so much.
“There were a lot of expectations on him considering the calibre of players who had previously worn the 10 and 12 jerseys at the Brumbies, but he actually embraced that and we understood from the get-go that he was his own player and had different strengths than guys like Stephen Larkham and Matt Giteau before him.
“It’s a really tough thing to go through what he has in his personal life, and to come back and achieve at the top end of the game is quite amazing. We need a couple of things to go our way for him to play one more match in Canberra, but we’re still hopeful.
“His character and worth to our game is something that we will never lose, and we’d certainly hope he can play a role in nurturing the next generation of players in Australia once he eventually retires, because that’s something he is really good at.
“Knowing him for a long time now and having been with him since the beginning, I have so much time for him and his character as a young man holds him in such esteem throughout the Rugby community. I wish him absolute success this coming game against the Jaguares.”
Christian Lealiifano Fact File:
Born: 24 September 1987, Auckland, New Zealand
Super Rugby Debut: Brumbies vs. Crusaders, 15 January 2008 (Christchurch)
Super Rugby Caps: 149*
Super Rugby Points: 961 (21 tries, 191 conversations, 156 penalty goals, 2 drop goals)
Test Debut: Australia vs. British & Irish Lions, 22 June 2013 (Brisbane)
Test Caps: 19
Test Points: 124 (1 try, 13 conversions, 31 penalty goals)
Brumbies vs. Crusaders, 15 January 2008 (Christchurch):
(1-22) Nic Henderson, Huia Edmonds, Guy Shepherdson, Al Campbell, Adam Wallace-Harrison, Jone Tawake, George Smith, Stephen Hoiles, Josh Holmes, Christian Lealiifano, Peter Playford, Gene Fairbanks, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Mark Gerrard, Julian Huxley, Saia Fainga’a, Salesi Ma’afu, Peter Kimlin, Julian Salvi, Patrick Phibbs, Francis Fainifo, Tyrone Smith.