Christian Leali’ifano fulfilled a lifelong dream when he ran out for his Wallaby debut in Brisbane against The British & Irish Lions in 2013 – but nothing could prepare him for that moment.
Born in Auckland, but brought up in Australia, Leali’ifano got the nod at inside centre from coach Robbie Deans to make his Test bow against the Lions at Suncorp Stadium.
At 25, he had suffered a few setbacks along the way, notably a broken ankle the year below which had dashed any hopes of a Test call-up.
In 2013 though, he was in flying form and was rewarded for that with a starting spot against Warren Gatland’s touring side.
Leali’ifano got as much of his family as possible to come up from Melbourne for the game, but even so, he was taken aback when he ran out onto the pitch.
He recalls: “It was unreal, overwhelming is probably the word for when you first run out. I thought there would be more Australian support but there was the Sea of Red. It was crazy, it was electric. I don’t think it’s something I’ll experience again so I’ll remember it for a long time.
“It was my first year as a Wallaby. I’d seen how big the Lions Tours had been on previous Tours. I remembered Dan Carter and the highlights on the 2005 Tour so that had stuck with me. It was a really special welcoming to international footy.
“It’s something that I probably would never expected to be as big as it was. For me to be a part of it was absolutely amazing, it’s a special moment in my life.”
In terms of a debut, Leali’ifano’s did not go to plan, a first-up tackle on Jonathan Davies in the opening minute of the game was the sum total of his contribution, the centre quickly attended to by medics before being helped from the field.
He spent the remainder of the game on the sidelines, crestfallen at his afternoon’s work being cut short so soon. That disappointment was exacerbated by Australia’s narrow defeat, Kurtley Beale missing a late penalty to win it as the tourists won 23-21.
“There are probably images of me there, a little kid lost,” Leali’ifano looks back.
“It was the disappointment in not being able to be involved in the game. Seeing how close we got in the first Test as well. The build-up was really special the whole week. Getting out to warm up at Suncorp, the national anthem, coming out, everything was really special in those moments. Then to get knocked out in the first minute or so, when you have worked so hard your whole life, that’s just footy. Thankfully it wasn’t my last time in that jersey. To be a part of that day was really, really cool.
“Those moments, I was just stoked to be in the squad and then Robbie Deans picked me to start, it’s a moment I’ll never forget. The exciting part was that I could get in and get amongst it and I sure did early on! Starting in any game is easier, especially with the enormity of the occasion, it definitely helped. I was ready to go, I was excited, it was just a shame I couldn’t contribute for the rest of the game.”
Leali’ifano recovered to take his place in the side a week later as Australia battled back to take the series to a decider.
That day he played the full 80 minutes, taking on goal-kicking duties in the 16-15 success, with his conversion of Adam Ashley-Cooper’s try four minutes from time the difference between the teams.
The Lions had a late chance to win it, Leigh Halfpenny with a long-range penalty that narrowly missed, with Leali’ifano breathing a huge sigh of relief.
He said: “The second game was special too, in Melbourne, where I grew up and played a lot of my junior footy. I had a lot of my family in and around there, I was disappointed a week before, a lot of my family flew up to Brisbane to watch a minute.
“Then, it was very expensive to do it again but it was a home game in Melbourne. That was really, really cool to have a lot of family there. And to get the performance we did, it was another tough game and I’m really happy we won. I was able to contribute as well.
“It was right on the edge of Halfpenny’s range. It would have been over for us if he’d made it. I’m sure he’d say he mishit it, but we were quite lucky in that one as well. It just fell short and we got the win. We felt we had locked it away and then they had a chance, that’s Test footy. In a series like that, it comes down to the small margins. The rugby gods were on our side that day.”
Leali’ifano was now up and running as a Wallaby, and again played his part in the decider. While the Lions eventually ran away with it in Sydney, Leali’ifano’s kicking brought Australia back into the game after a slow start – they trailed just 22-16 before Johnny Sexton’s try just before the hour opened the floodgates in a 41-16 win that clinched the series for the Lions.
Leali’ifano remembers: “That third Test, the atmosphere, must have been close to 90,000. It was amazing. It was a game of footy as well, back and forth early.
“We lost George Smith quite early but we worked ourselves back into the game. But then they got their tails up and ran away with it which was disappointing for us because we’d worked so hard to get ourselves back into the game. We thought it was going to go down to the wire again. They were just clinical in a few key moments.”
Following that Lions Tour, Leali’ifano has experienced the ups and downs of the game, as well as life in general.
He went onto win 26 caps for Australia in all, the last of which came at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, four years after narrowly missing out on selection for the tournament in England.
In between those two, he was diagnosed with leukaemia, returning to play after receiving a bone marrow transplant.
Most recently, his career has taken another turn. The addition of Moana Pasifika to Super Rugby gave Leali’ifano an opportunity to play for his Samoan heritage, and a change in eligibility regulations by World Rugby changed that even further.
In 2023 he made his debut for Samoa, competing at a second World Cup in France at the end of the year – another cherished memory.
He explained: “It was something that I didn’t think would ever be possible once I chose to play for Australia. Then the eligibility rules for World Rugby changed, it was a game changer.
“It gave me a chance that I could possibly represent my heritage. I feel blessed. I put my hand up, obviously but I wanted to be playing good enough footy to warrant selection or consideration. Thankfully it all worked out, I was happy to be a part of something really, really special.
“The professional rugby player in me is disappointed in where we could have got to (Samoa went out in the group stages in France) but the Samoan in me has the pride at being able to give back to my home nation and my family.
“The two things felt completely different, playing for Australia and Samoa. I grew up in Australia, learned my rugby there and got to represent where I grew up but to be able to play for somewhere that is your blood, the people that have sacrificed so much for you to do what you do, I can’t explain the feeling of how special that moment was to be able to play for Samoa.”
He continues to play for Moana Pasifika, with a new Lions connection as Stephen Jones, the former Wales and Lions fly-half, has joined up with the squad as an attack coach – to rave reviews.
Leali’ifano said: “I love him, he’s unreal. We didn’t know what to really expect from Jonesy. We had obviously seen what he’d done as a player and his teams with Wales as well. Having him has been fantastic.
“He has added so much to our group, he probably has eight to ten coffees before midday, he’s just so excited and ready to go. He has always got the ability to learn and not only in the footy sense but also the culture of the group and the different cultures of the Pacific. He’s really immersed himself which has been really impressive. The boys have really taken to him.”
It has been quite the journey for Leali’ifano, and more than a decade on from his Lions experience, he is better-placed to reflect on just what a special time it was for him.
He added: “In terms of what I’d take away, it’s probably just how rare those moments are. It’s once every 12 years, once in a generation sometimes. Only a few players are lucky enough to be involved in a couple, hopefully James Slipper will be there again for the next one. There will be a few guys hopefully involved. But you get an appreciation of how special those moments are.
“When you are in it, you do appreciate it but you are just playing and busy every day preparing and you are focused. So when you can take a step back and reflect a few years on, you really appreciate it a lot more. It’s an occasion that I hold really dear to my heart, it was a very special moment in my life.
“I had never experienced anything like it, so I just thought that was normal and then it’s actually not. It really was special.”