British & Irish Lions
Lealiifano's rollercoaster ride
Tom Hamilton in Sydney
July 3, 2013
Christian Lealiifano lines up what proved to be the winning conversion © Getty Images
On Wednesday, before the British & Irish Lions' team announcement which will now dominate the news agenda, the media who travelled to Sydney instead of Noosa attended a press conference with Australian Rugby Union CEO Bill Pulver.
He spoke animatedly about how proud he has been of the Wallabies, the supporters and of the whole series. He obviously hopes the men in green and gold will come through victorious at the weekend but had it not been for Christian Lealiifano's performance on Saturday, the series would have already been engulfed by the sea of red.
The inside centre had a nightmare debut when he was knocked out in the first Test after less than a minute but bounced back with a 100% kicking record in the game at Melbourne. He personifies the topsy-turvy nature of professional sport.
Overcoming adversity is nothing new to Lealiifano. Back in 2006, he lost his father Tavita and at the end of last year, a close friend of his also died. But come Saturday, he will have reminders of both key figures on the field. His father's name is tattooed on the inside of his left forearm while he wears a bracelet in honour of his friend on his right wrist.
Two personal effects, but he spoke openly about them to us earlier. "They are two guys who have been really important to me. I'm sure they are looking down on me. I went and saw my Dad at the cemetery the other day and I was hoping he'd be there at the game. I'm sure he had some help with the kick".
And it was the conversion that won the game for the Wallabies. He said the experience was "just like kicking in the back yard", except this was a garden with 56,771 people watching on. He said he'd have been "bagged" had he missed it, but he's no stranger to nailing late kicks to secure victory having slotted the winning shot for the Australian schoolboy's side against their New Zealand counterparts earlier in his career, as his former coach reminded him after Saturday's game.
For Lealiifano, one of his highlights from Saturday's Test was the opportunity to play against Brian O'Driscoll. It is not something he will be afforded on Saturday. Throughout the tour, when the press have asked the younger generation about 2001 or O'Driscoll in particular, they usually say they remember watching him on television when they were in their earlier years, Lealiifano was no different.
"Mate that was amazing to play against him," Lealiifano said. "I watched him as a young kid running around and he's very experienced and I learnt a bit from him. He knows where the ball will be and where he needs to be and what his options are. Hopefully I can get to that level."
His humble and engaging nature was refreshing and he clearly has strong morals and ethics. Despite being knocked out by Jonathan Davies in the first Test, it was the Welshman's attitude which resonated with Lealiifano.
"To miss out in the first 45 seconds was disappointing. One of the things when looking back, I saw Jonathan Davies tending to me which was warming. We are playing a sport and trying to compete and for another bloke to take care of you from the opposition was very special for me."
A special moment for a promising player and one who could develop into a Test star. Australia's coverage of the series has revolved around Israel Folau, a stamp and will now probably turn to George Smith, but Lealiifano has reason to be proud and the Lions will need to be on their guard if they are to prevent him putting in another match-winning performance come Saturday.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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