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When Christian Lealiifano arrived in Canberra back in 2007, he found himself in a fight with the rest of Australia’s fly-half stocks to claim a spot in the Brumbies Academy.
It was a popular time in Australian-rugby history to be blooding play-makers. Names like Beale, Cooper and Toomua were starting to filter through, making it hard for a kid from Melbourne to get noticed.
By that stage, Lealiifano had already worked his way into national selections for the Australian Schoolboys, Under 19’s, 21’s and Sevens sides, but it was a spot in the University of Canberra Brumbies top squad which had him focussed and committed.
Lining up with players like Ben Alexander, Anthony Hegarty and Peter Kimlin in Academy squads, Lealiifano knew he was only a few good performances away from clinching a spot with the full timers.
Claiming his 45th cap on Saturday night, Lealiifano has transcended the pack to be one of the University of Canberra Brumbies leaders, both on and off the field. With the team now boasting 13 players with Polynesian heritage, ‘Bruz’ is an old head amongst his community and team mates.
“When I arrived at the Brumbies, guys like Franky Fainifo and George Smith were there to show me the ropes and help me out,” Lealiifano said.
“It’s a special thing in a rugby team, the Polynesian influence. I’ve been lucky enough to have older guys right the way through. In 2009 there were 13 of us and I was one of the younger guys. Having those older players around to lead by example was a big positive for me.
“Now it seems that has been switched up a bit, I’m one of the older guys with 12 younger Polynesian players. I’m enjoying being the old man around the place. Seeing these guys like Kimami Sitauti, Joe Tomane and Tevita Kuridrani training and play is pretty exciting.”
A telling sign of Lealiifano’s leadership credentials can be seen in his willingness to take on the goal-kicking responsibilities when the University of Canberra Brumbies took on the Cheetahs earlier this year.
With Nic White suffering from the flu, Lealiifano surprised everyone – even Head Coach Jake White – when he stepped up to take the shot. Sinking the Cheetahs after the siren then nailing six from seven last week against the Chiefs has only boosted Lealiifano’s stocks.
While it’s not totally foreign for Lealiifano to kick goals, it certainly wasn’t in his pre-game preparations. In 2011 he managed just one from five all season.
“I’ve always enjoyed goal kicking and when I was younger it was a big part of my game,” Lealiifano said.
“Last year was tough, Matt Giteau was kicking well and the ones he decided to let me take were always the hardest. I was hitting them really well at training then struggling in the games.
“I feel like the last couple of weeks I’ve been able to put all the behind me though and I’ve been hitting them nicely.”
Undefeated against the Waratahs, Crusaders, Chiefs and Blue, the Highlanders present a massive challenge for Lealiifano and his mates. A win on Saturday would go a long way towards a finals drive, claiming valued home-ground competition points against the Super Rugby pace setters.
Lealiifano said now was the time to strike, giving the team breathing room as it heads into a long period of away games both internationally and throughout Australia.
“They’re going to be hard to beat, they’ve got a good forward pack and they’re playing some good footy at the moment,” Lealiifano said.
“They just seem to keep notching up wins and knocking over the bigger teams, so we’ve got a tough challenge. If we can improve from last week, minimise our errors and execute better I feel like we’ll give ourselves every chance to win on Saturday.
“It’s not going to be easy. We need to look for the hard work and hopefully the result will follow.”
POS: Inside backs
SR Caps: 45
SR Pts: 85