Christian Lealiifano in ACT Brumbies team for Super Rugby final against Hurricanes
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Christian Lealiifano in ACT Brumbies team for Super Rugby final against Hurricanes

Christian Lealiifano's comeback journey has taken many twists and turns, but one thing never changed. The smile on his face gave everyone the belief he would play Super Rugby again.

The inspirational Brumbies leader will take the next step in his ongoing battle to beat leukaemia when he plays his first game since being diagnosed with the disease in a quarter-final on Friday night.

It will be a remarkable and emotional moment for one of the most popular players in world rugby, but Lealiifano doesn't want to be a distraction for his teammates or the Brumbies' championship goal.

Coach Stephen Larkham had no hesitation adding Lealiifano to the bench for an elimination clash against the defending champion Wellington Hurricanes.

The Brumbies' co-captain has played a handful of minutes in an exhibition game and a Tuggeranong Vikings' fourth-grade match since being diagnosed in August last year.

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But his teammates and Larkham only needed to look at the smile on his face to know he's ready for his comeback moment.

"Has he changed? Yeah, I think he's a much stronger person," Larkham said.

"His self awareness is much greater. He's definitely changed. He's always been composed, but I've seen a new level of composure with him.

"He understands how to work through problems in his mind now. I've seen him go through some really difficult times.

"I've seen him push himself beyond breaking at times to get right for this. It was an emotional journey but now there's good focus on the team.

"It's a great story for Christian and certainly fitting for him to come back in front of his home crowd."

The most important people in the crowd will be Lealiifano's family, who flew to Brisbane two weeks ago only for the playmaker to be cruelly ruled out because of a hamstring strain.

Many of Lealiifano's goals centred around family after his shock diagnosis. Son Jeremih celebrated his first birthday one month ago and Lealiifano got to play with brother Lix in a fourth-grade match.

Lealiifano said sister Sally gave him "a gift" of a bone-marrow transplant last year, which helped Lealiifano go into remission in February.

The Brumbies have been his other family for the past 10 years, and it will be a heart-warming moment when he runs on to the field against the Hurricanes.

His attitude and determination has rubbed off on his teammates, including Wallabies prop Scott Sio.

Sio, whose mother battled cancer when he started his Super Rugby career, has been a regular visitor at the Lealiifano home and admired the way his close friend has dealt with every curveball.

"He's an instant lift for the squad ... to see how enthusiastic he has been getting through this, he's been so positive," Sio said.

"His family have been waiting to see him back as much as we have. I always believed he would take the field this year, mainly because of the determination he had.

"This is an ongoing process and he'll live with this for a couple of more years to come. But the way he's attacked it head on has been the amazing thing for me."

Lealiifano is one of several changes to the Brumbies side for the mammoth task against the Hurricanes, with Larkham recalling rested stars for the contest.​

Captain Sam Carter, Rory Arnold, Allan Alaalatoa, Joe Powell and Chris Alcock are back in the game day squad and reclaim their spots in the starting XV.

But it's Lealiifano's selection on the bench and the anticipation of him getting on the field which will transcend results or championship dreams.

"It was very scary at the start, and there were ups and downs of little setbacks along the way. But I was always positive," Larkham said.

"That was easy because Christian was positive."

Brumbies skipper Sam Carter added: "People haven't seen how hard he's worked to get in the position he is in now. It's exciting.

"He gets his chance this weekend, it's a massive boost for us and he's one of my favourite players to play with."

SUPER RUGBY QUARTER-FINAL

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Friday: ACT Brumbies v Wellington Hurricanes at Canberra Stadium, 7.35pm. Tickets available from Ticketek.

Brumbies: 15. Tom Banks, 14. Henry Speight, 13. Tevita Kuridrani, 12. Andrew Smith, 11. James Dargaville, 10. Wharenui Hawera, 9. Joe Powell, 8. Jordan Smiler, 7. Chris Alcock, 6. Scott Fardy, 5. Sam Carter, 4. Rory Arnold, 3. Allan Alaalatoa, 2. Josh Mann-Rea, 1. Scott Sio. Reserves: 16. Robbie Abel, 17. Ben Alexander, 18. Les Leuluailii-Makin 19. Blake Enever, 20. Jarrad Butler, 21. Tomas Cubelli, 22. Jordan Jackson-Hope, 23. Christian Lealiifano.

Chris Dutton is the sports editor at The Canberra Times.

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