Australia v British & Irish Lions, Brisbane, June 22
Lealiifano primed for return
June 18, 2013
Brumbies fly-half Christian Leali'ifano poses for a shoot at the Wallabies' two-day logistics camp ahead of the British and Irish Lions Tour, Sydney, April 15, 2013
Christian Lealiifano is vying with Pat McCabe for a starting berth at inside-centre © Getty Images

Wallaby-in-waiting Christian Lealiifano's remarkable return from his horrific ankle injury has been one of sport's most heart-warming stories of 2013.

But for Lealiifano, poised to make his Test debut against the British & Irish Lions on Saturday night, it's not the first time form he's bounced back from devastation.

The proof is written on his wrist.

Lealiifano was just 18 in 2006 when his father Tavita passed away just before he headed to Dubai for the under-19 world championships.

Despite his immense grief, the Auckland-born, Melbourne-raised, Canberra-based talent piloted Australia to the world title, starring at fly-half in a side that included David Pocock and the Faingaa twins.

His father's name is tattooed on the inside of his left forearm, which he also straps before every game and writes "Tavita" on in black texta. Over strapping on his right wrist, the devout Christian pens a cross.

"He passed away a week before we left (for Dubai)," Lealiifano said. "That same year I signed up with the Brumbies so he (Tavita) missed out on my Super career. "I thought I'd get a tattoo to remember him and he guides me along all the time. I'm sure he'd be pretty happy that I'm here at the moment."

Now 25, the Tongan product will have his mother Mafa and brothers Aviti and Eddie in the stands at a packed Suncorp Stadium when he caps his comeback against the Lions.

Eleven months ago, the in-form Lealiifano's hopes of a Test breakthrough were dashed by a badly broken and dislocated ankle in the Brumbies' resounding win over the New South Wales Waratahs in Canberra.

The resonating image from the match is the dosed-up playmaker giving the thumbs up while lying on a medical gurney and singing the team's victory song in the dressing room.

You wouldn't know it on the basis of his 2013 form, but Lealiifano says the ankle still gives him grief and there have been times he seriously doubted he'd make it back to where he left off.

"I've had plenty of those thoughts in the last 12 months," he said. "Some guys don't come back from something as serious as this. But I think when I had those times I had support around me to try and believe in that again. Being here and having this opportunity is testament to (family and team-mates)."

The form No. 12 in Australia, Lealiifano's all-round game may see him start the first Test at inside centre ahead of the direct-running Pat McCabe, a favourite of coach Robbie Deans.

"Christian's found a position there at 12 which suits his game and he's comfortable with and his play has reflected that," Berrick Barnes said. "It's a big decision for (Deans at inside centre) but either one of them ... they're blokes you want beside you once you're out there."


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