A 34-year-old born in Auckland, raised in Melbourne, and who called Canberra home during 150 Super Rugby appearances, is officially the first signing for Moana Pasifika.
But it’s his Samoan heart and soul that led Christian Leali’ifano to turn his back on a hero’s return to the Brumbies next season for one of their newest Super Rugby Pacific rivals.
“A big part of the reason of being able to represent this team is that I think I’ve done it all at the Brumbies,” Leali’ifano said.
“The Brumbies have been fantastic in that as well, being able to allow us to represent our heritage and Moana Pasifika side.
“So to have a team that is fully dedicated to just that is super special.
“I am so grateful that I’ve got the opportunity while I am still playing, just, barely still playing.
“To be involved with this is really going to be quite powerful.”
Leali’ifano had been in talks to rejoin the franchise that the inside centre was loyal to from 2007 until 2019, before being convinced by Moana Pasifika officials to honour his late father’s memory.
Tavita Leali’ifano passed away the year before his son made his professional debut after sacrificing a lot for his rugby playing – and praying – children that included close brothers Lix and Eddie.
The team that is all but starting from scratch will represent the game’s fans of Pacific island nations, Samoa and Tonga, but play out of South Auckland where Leali’ifano nearby first picked up a ball and ran with it.
“Seeing them (Moana Pasifika) put the pieces together and the purposes of the team, with the connections to my heritage and my ancestry, I thought it was something that really excited me,” he said.
“Luckily enough they thought the same to take me along for the ride as well.”
Leali’ifano knows the curtain on his career is closing soon.
Never did he think it could end up like this.
Certainly not after being diagnosed with leukaemia in 2016, undergoing a bone marrow transplant and enduring chemotherapy – and then beating cancer to return to the field in time for the 2019 Wallabies Rugby World Cup campaign.
But despite 26 loyal Test matches for Australia, it was his eyes glancing across the ditch that stirred what might be one day.
That day will arrive on February 18 next year when Moana Pasifika – along with Fijian Drua – debut
“I saw them play in that exhibition game against the Māori All Blacks and then hearing that they got the licence to be in the Super Rugby competition, it was obviously just a thought that it would be nice to be involved in that sort of team if there was ever any opportunity,” Leali’ifano said.
“I never thought ever in my playing career would I see a team based off Pacific Islanders in this kind of competition.”