When addressing his team ahead of the preseason, Easts’ head coach Tim Cornforth pointed to his good mate Christian Lealiifano for inspiration, not just for Lealiifano’s attacking prowess and leadership on the field, but more so for his biggest battle off it.
In August 2016, two weeks after the Brumbies were knocked out of the Super Rugby finals, 31-year-old Lealiifano was diagnosed with leukaemia. Following a bone marrow transplant, he went into remission in January 2017.
The news of Lealiifano’s illness and time away from the game rocked the Canberra rugby community and none more so than his close friend Cornforth. It showed the former under 19’s Brumbies player the importance of living your best life.
“I tell the playing group that it’s just a game at the end of the day. There is a life after rugby. I believe we will find success if we are happy with our life off the field,” he shared with Region Media.
“I use my good mate Christian with his illness as an example. It shows how short life is and the importance of rugby. Think of his partner and his kid.
“There are a lot of guys and girls who are going through stuff off the field so we encourage them to come to the club and enjoy the safe, family culture that we have.
“Everyone talks about a legacy that you want to leave. In a couple of years, I want my legacy to be that we created a great, safe team environment.”
With the help of women’s head coaches Irene MacArthur and Tevita Siulangapo, the club has become a “safe haven” that welcomes everyone, with partners and kids coming to team training nearly every night.
Cornforth remains adamant that he wouldn’t be able to coach if his wife and kids weren’t there, and he wants to show his young team how important family is.
“Having the women’s team helps the club because it levels the playing field and atmosphere and shows that this not only a male sport and that you can’t judge anyone who wants to play the game,” he said.
“That is the family environment that we are talking about.
“I only retired from playing three years ago and I tried the transition from getting away from the game but I couldn’t do it.
“My wife could see that and told me to go and try coaching. I had a deep think about it and thanks to the support from the club and my family, I decided to try it.”
Last season was almost the fairytale season for the rebuilding club after the first-grade side won their first game in three years and defeated the previously undefeated Royals. The side finished the season outside the playoff spot, but the second-year coach said his biggest battle this season is showing his troops how to keep winning.
“This season is about teaching the playing group about success and how to consistently win,” he said. “Last season when we started winning, they started feeling pressure and were too worried about losing.”