Christian Lealiifano opens up on losing father to cancer

Christian Lealiifano with his wife Luga and son Jeremih before captain's run training on Thursday
Christian Lealiifano with his wife Luga and son Jeremih before captain's run training on Thursday

Christian Lealiifano has opened up on losing his father to cancer and pointed to the tragedy as the catalyst of his professional rugby career.

The ACT Brumbies' favourite son made a remarkable return from leukaemia in the Super Rugby quarterfinal last year, before continuing his comeback at Irish club Ulster.

The 30-year-old reflected on the loss of his father and his own cancer diagnosis in an emotional video posted by Ulster, where he'll conclude a five-month loan on Monday.

Lealiifano has been an influential figure in his 15 games at the club and will make his final appearance in their European Champions Cup match against Wasps, before returning to the Brumbies.

In the moving 10-minute video, Lealiifano details how his career began following the death of his father when he was just 18.

"Just before the 2006 under-19 World Cup I lost my father to liver cancer and that was a really tough time trying to decide whether I was going to the tournament," Lealiifano said.

"I sat down with my brother and my mum and they were both pretty keen for me to head away, they said that's what dad would have wanted.

"So I went away and I'm thankful I went. It was special because of the hardship I was going through and then being able to win the competition was a massive reward.

"I felt like going to that tournament was career-defining for me because I got back and got a contract with the Brumbies. Sometimes I wonder if I'd never gone would I still be in Melbourne today trying to find work."

Injury setbacks delayed Lealiifano's Australian debut, but after four seasons with the Brumbies he was named in the Wallabies side to face the British and Irish Lions.

It was in Wallabies camp three years later when Lealiifano noticed the first signs of cancer.

"During the June series of 2016 I just felt a little bit off. I didn't know what was going on and I sort of tried to push through training but I was getting tired and was getting worse and worse," Lealiifano said.

"I couldn't shake a cold or do anything really and I'd just had my son who was two month olds, people thought that was why I was so run down, late nights looking after him.

"I went for a blood test and after I walked into the doctor's office and he dropped the leukemia word - it was such a heavy word - and in my immediate thoughts I just switched off while he kept talking."

The 19-Test Wallaby began chemotherapy two days later and said as soon as he arrived in hospital his mindset switched to beating the disease to be with his son.

"Whether I was going to make it through it or not, I wanted to make sure I was positive and happy and that people felt that around me," Lealiifano said.

"To have my son there, and knowing that if he was sick and I was sick we couldn't have contact, because it would make me worse, that was a real drive for me.

"I needed to be a father to Jeremiah, there was no way he was going to grow up without a dad and that motivated me so much."

The Brumbies' season begins against the Sunwolves in Tokyo on February 24.

This story Christian Lealiifano opens up on losing father to cancer first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.