Christian Lealiifano arrived in Ulster as a stop gap and to gain match fitness ahead of the 2018 Super Rugby season but he has left Ulster in a magnificent position.
The Australian international was not able to guide Ulster to a first appearance in the Champions Cup knockout rounds since 2014 in his last appearance for Ulster, but gave Ulster supporters many memories.
He debuted in a thumping of the Cheetahs in Round 1 and played more minutes than anyone else during his time here. Lealiifano’s immense acceleration was prominent in his first match as well as his third appearance against Scarlets.
The Scarlets match also showed a different side to Lealiifano. His tactical kicking, along with John Cooney’s, was exceptional and allowed Ulster squeeze the life out of the PRO12 champions and grind out a very good victory.
He scored his first Ulster try against La Rochelle in the second round of Europe and crossed the whitewash again to snatch a draw against the Dragons in Rodney Parade. Lealiifano brought a running game but was also sharp on the break and averaged almost 4.5 metres per carry. This was evidenced in his Man of the Match display against Harlequins at Kingspan Stadium.
The most pleasing aspect about his tenure was his mental fortitude and physicality in the tackle. Not one to negate defensive duties, Lealiifano missed just 12 tackles and made 105 from a position where tackling is not usually noted as a strenght. Against Treviso in November, he made 13 tackles without fail.
He was victim of a number of suspect tackles in the game against Munster but inspired Ulster to a magnificent comeback with a beautifully weighted pass to Craig Gilroy for the equalising try.
I’m sure I speak for most Ulster supporters when I say that I would love him to remain at the province. He has a tough Super Rugby schedule ahead with the Brumbies but I’m sure Lealiifano’s home team will have a few more fans in this side of the world.
While he is a robust individual with panache, he always played with a smile on his face and by all accounts will be sorely missed in the dressing room as well as the pitch.
Lealiifano ranks up there alongside Stefan Terblanche as a short term replacement. Who do you think made the biggest impact?