The Hurricanes are genuinely excited to be a part of Christian Lealiifano’s comeback, but the lingering memory of their last trip to Canberra will ensure there’s no room for sentiment.
Lealiifano will be the the ACT Brumbies’ bench weapon in his first game since being diagnosed with leukaemia 11 months ago, as he lines up in the Super Rugby quarterfinal showdown at Canberra Stadium on Friday night.
His journey back to the field has touched players around the world, with livewire Hurricanes fullback Nehe Milner-Skudder saying it was “bloody inspiring” to see Lealiifano back on the field.
Lealiifano looms as a Brumbies second-half weapon in his comeback game and the Hurricanes are on high alert for an ambush, despite winning their past 13 games against overseas opponents.
The Hurricanes were thumped 52-10 the last time they were in Canberra, prompting former Wallabies captain Phil Kearns to label them “fat, slow and unfit”.
The Hurricanes went on to win the Super Rugby championship, but the memory of losing to the Brumbies still stings.
Ironically it was also the last time the Brumbies beat a Kiwi rival and they’ll have to end an Australian rugby drought if they want to keep their season alive.
New Zealand teams won all 25 trans-Tasman derbies this year, but Hurricanes No 8 Brad Shields says it will count for nothing if they stumble against the Brumbies.
“The Brumbies might not have played their best rugby [this season], but we’re in Canberra and this is home for them,” Shields said.
“This is quarterfinal rugby. It’s going to be a long day at the office if we don’t bring our A-game. Whatever has happened in the year is worth nothing if you lose on Friday night.
“We learnt a lot about ourselves in that first round [in Canberra] last year, we still use that as motivation. We don’t want to be in that situation again … but it showed how well the Brumbies can be at home.”
The Hurricanes will be bolstered by the return of Beauden Barrett and captain Dane Coles, who will be playing his first game in four months after battling concussion symptoms.
The Brumbies have added Lealiifano to the bench for his first game of the season and less than a year after being told he may never play again.
News of Lealiifano’s illness rocked the rugby world, including Milner-Skudder and Shields.
“It’s bloody inspiring,” Milner-Skudder said.
“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.”
Shields added: “It’s massive. To see him go through what he has, it’s inspirational for us. You put rugby aside and you’re happy to see someone like that coming back on the field.
“He’ll probably get a bit of a standing ovation from the crowd. He’s a tough bugger and that shows a lot about his character.”
The Hurricanes have been one of the most dominant sides in Super Rugby the past two years, losing only a handful of games and destroying opposition defences.
They scored 89 tries in the regular season, more than doubling the Brumbies’ tally of 41, to stamp themselves as the best attacking side in the competition.
They thumped the Brumbies 56-21 earlier in the season in New Zealand and have won 13 games in a row against overseas teams.
However, they haven’t won in Canberra since 2010 and have beaten the Brumbies at home just four times in Super Rugby history.
“I hate losing, I’m a pretty competitive person so to get a win is always nice,” Milner-Skudder said after arriving in Canberra.
“Especially against trans-Tasman rivals, it makes it even sweeter. But we know this week [the regular-season dominance] counts for nothing.
“If we lose we’re going home and it counts for nothing. It’s a different ball game come the play-offs.”
Stats and facts
- The Brumbies have won five of their last seven games against the Hurricanes, although their two defeats in that run came in their last three meetings.
- This will be the third playoff meeting between these teams, with the spoils currently split at one win apiece.
- The Brumbies won six playoff games in a row on home soil before losing 15-9 against the Highlanders in 2016.
- The Hurricanes (14.5) have made the most clean breaks per game of any team so far this season, while the Brumbies (6.1) have conceded the fewest per game.
- The Hurricanes boast the two top try-scorers in Super Rugby this season in Vince Aso and Ngani Laumape (14 tries each), while no player has assisted more tries than halfback duo, Beauden Barrett (13) and TJ Perenara (11).
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.
Hurricanes: 15. Nehe Milner-Skudder, 14. Wes Goosen, 13. Jordie Barrett, 12. Ngani Laumape, 11. Julian Savea, 10. Beauden Barrett, 9. TJ Perenara (c), 8. Brad Shields, 7. Ardie Savea, 6. Vaea Fifita, 5. Sam Lousi, 4. Mark Abbott, 3. Jeff To’omaga-Allen, 2. Ricky Riccitelli, 1. Ben May Reserves: 16. Dane Coles, 17. Chris Eves, 18. Loni Uhila, 19. Reed Prinsep, 20. Callum Gibbins, 21. Te Tairoa Tahuriorangi, 22.Otere Black, 23. Cory Jane.
Date: Friday, July 21
Venue: Canberra Stadium
Kick-off: 21:35 local (09:35 GMT)