Leali'ifano's return lights up Super Rugby playoffs
By STEVE McMORRAN
Jul. 20, 2017
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Christian Leali'ifano's return to Super Rugby after a courageous battle with cancer is inspiring players on both sides of Friday's quarterfinal between his Brumbies and the defending champion Hurricanes.
Leali'ifano will take his place on the bench for the Brumbies' home playoff at Canberra, 11 months after being diagnosed with leukemia. He underwent a life-saving bone marrow transplant in late 2016 and was told in February that his cancer is in remission.
The Wallabies utility back made his return to rugby in a festival match in Singapore in June and later in a fourth-grade club match, but a hamstring injury delayed his Super Rugby comeback.
Brumbies captain Sam Carter said Leali'ifano's return for the playoffs was "an awesome moment for the team, for Brumbies Rugby and for himself."
"I don't think people have seen how hard he's worked to get in the position he's in now," Carter said, "so it's very exciting news."
Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham shed light on Leali'ifano's struggle to return to top-level rugby.
"I've seen him go through some really difficult times," Larkham said. "I've seen him push himself beyond breaking at times to get right for this."
Hurricanes players Nehe Milner-Skudder and Brad Shields said they were moved and inspired by Leali'ifano's his recovery and return to rugby.
"It was pretty sad to hear what he went through, but to see him come out the other end and back playing footy ... I'm inspired by his story and I've been a big fan for a long time," All Blacks winger Milner-Skudder said.
Leali'ifano's comeback also ushers in the first round of playoffs with a good news story which will help submerge widespread doubts about the fairness of the playoffs format.
The Brumbies earned the right to host the defending champions by winning the Australian conference, though they won only six of 15 games in the regular season. Their 34 championship points would only have been good enough for ninth place on a combined Super Rugby standings.
At the same time, the Wellington-based Hurricanes won 12 of 15 regular season matches, scoring a competition record 596 points at an average of just under 40 per game and accumulating 58 championship points. That would have placed them third behind the Lions and Crusaders on a combined table but, instead, was only good enough for fifth behind the four conference winners.
The Lions, having qualified in first place, will host the Durban-based Sharks in Johannesburg in a quarterfinal on Saturday. The Seven-time champion Crusaders topped the New Zealand conference but finished two points behind the Lions in second place overall and will host the Dunedin-based Highlanders in Christchurch.
The Cape Town-based Stormers, who finished atop the South Africa One conference but with 20 points fewer than the Crusaders, earned a home quarterfinal against the Hamilton-based Chiefs. They faced the same opponent in the same match at the same venue last season and lost 60-21.
The Lions beat the Sharks 27-10 last week and were propelled into first place when the Crusaders had their first loss of the season — at the hands of the Hurricanes — after 14 wins. That left the Lions and Crusaders to face quarterfinal derbies of which the Crusaders is likely the most difficult.
The Crusaders won both of their regular season games against the Highlanders by three-point margins: 30-27 in round two and 25-22 in round 15.
"If the last two games are anything to go by there will be a bit of drama and a cliff hanger," Crusaders assistant coach Leon MacDonald said.
The Lions have also beaten the Sharks twice this season: 34-29 in round six and again last weekend.
"They asked a lot of questions of us when they came up here first time round and we know we're in for a very physical arm-wrestle," Lions assistant Swys de Bruin said.
Stormers coach Robbie Fleck says he considered last year's quarterfinal loss to the Chiefs as a positive and it led directly to their 34-26 win over the Chiefs in round seven.
"They helped us by exposing the areas we needed to work on and we did that during the off-season," Fleck said. "We looked at last year's quarterfinal before we played them in April and we played well at Newlands to beat them."