Wallabies fly-half Christian Lealiifano will make an emotional return from cancer in the first of this year’s Super Rugby finals on Friday.
The 29-year-old will start off the bench in his first Brumbies match since being shocked by a leukaemia diagnosis 11 months ago.
Lealiifano, who is a Brumbies co-captain, went through chemotherapy and a successful bone marrow transplant from his sister, Sally, before returning to training.
Australia legend George Gregan – a former teammate of Lealiifano’s at the Brumbies – said the 19-Test star’s return to the sport this year was a bit of a surprise.
“I always felt a bit of hope, but he had a huge fight on his hands,” Gregan told The New Daily.
“He has overcome a huge amount of adversity, which shows you heaps about Christian and his family.
“I saw him a couple of times this year and the first time, he was quite frail.
“But the next time I saw him, I could instantly tell he had responded really well [to treatment].
“For him to be playing again – it’s just a great rugby story, a great human story.”
Gregan, now a rugby commentator with Fox Sports, said despite the situation facing him, Lealiifano had kept a positive mindset.
And he was insistent that that not only helped Lealiifano – but also the Brumbies players – as he deputised in an assistant coaching role once he felt up to it.
“That’s the sort of guy he is – he is always positive, glass half full,” he said.
“He gives a lot of energy to others by just being around.
“A sporting club can be like a second family, a home away from home, and it has been really motivating for him to get back in the club environment.
“And for the players – seeing what he has overcome has done wonders for everyone.”
As Gregan’s career at the Brumbies was winding down, Lealiifano’s was just beginning – and he remembers a young kid who had all the talent – and, crucially, all the desire.
“He was a young player identified as having a big future and he’s turned into a world-class player,” he added.
“He trained a lot with us back in those days and he always wanted to learn. I remember him being really coachable.
“His skill set was always good but he had a thirst for knowledge that you want all players to have.
“It’d be great for him to get on the field with the match in the balance [on Friday].”
After winning just six Super Rugby matches for the season – but making the finals because they topped the Australian conference – the Brumbies are rank outsiders on Friday evening.
But Gregan, who says Stephen Larkham’s side will use the emotion of Lealiifano’s return “in a very positive way”, believes the result is far from a forgone conclusion.
“People will bring up the past failings against sides from New Zealand and while they are relevant, in that we have been off the pace, this is knockout football,” he added.
“There’s a different pressure. It’s all on the line … it’s not always the team who finished higher that wins a final.
“The Hurricanes are clearly very good, having played in the last two finals, but there’s nothing to lose for the Brumbies.
“And knowing how they are coached, they will be well prepared for this match.”
Super Rugby Finals – Week One
Friday July 21
Brumbies v Hurricanes (7:35pm EST)
Saturday July 22
Crusaders v Highlanders (5:35pm EST)
Lions v Sharks (10:30pm EST)
Sunday July 23
Stormers v Chiefs (1:00am EST)
The Brumbies clash with the Hurricanes in the Super Rugby Quarter Finals at 7.00pm AEST on Friday, LIVE and with no ad-breaks during play on FOX SPORTS.