Young inside centre turns into a match winner in just his second Test match.
Australian coach Robbie Deans has predicted a big future for Christian Leali’ifano after he climbed off the canvas to kick the Wallabies to a series-levelling 16-15 win over the British and Irish Lions in a gripping second Test in Melbourne.
Lealiifano, who was knocked out and carried off just 40 seconds into his Test debut the previous week in Brisbane, was Australia’s hero as he nervelessly struck the winning conversion of centre partner Adam Ashley Cooper’s 76th-minute try to clinch victory for the Wallabies on Saturday.
It was an assured performance from the 25-year-old ACT Brumbies midfield back, who combined with fly-half James O’Connor to give the Wallabies a playmaking double act to provide the ammunition for Australia’s potent backline.
Lealiifano, who was to be the designated goalkicker before his unfortunate premature exit in Brisbane, repaid the faith of Deans by kicking three penalties and a conversion from his four kicks to guide the Wallabies home in a thriller in Melbourne.
It was a different goalkicking performance from the Wallabies, who squandered 14 points between O’Connor and Kurtley Beale in the series opener.
Deans has been tracking Lealiifano’s progress under former Springbok coach Jake White at the Brumbies and a cruel run of injuries has prevented him from starring for the Wallabies earlier.
Lealiifano sustained a knee injury in 2010 and a dislocated ankle last year when he was on the verge of getting a national call-up.
“He is class,” Deans said of Lealiifano. “To deal with that sort of pressure as calmly as he did he has clearly got a big future.”
Deans backed the inclusion of Lealiifano after his recovery from his head knock saying that he gave the backline more fluency in concert with O’Connor, who relished the presence of Lealiifano alongside him after the disruption in Brisbane.
“That will be a big fillip for James, particularly the part he played in the defining moment (Ashley Cooper’s try),” Deans said.
“It wasn’t easy for anyone out there and a lot of the errors came from the intensity of the game. It was two heavyweights going toe to toe.
“James did some good things. He had moments of frustration. But he held it together to pull off the defining play. He’ll take a lot out of that as will the team.”
Deans was also pleased with the contribution of winger Israel Folau, who was held more in check by the Lions in a defence-orientated game after his dazzling two-try Test debut in Brisbane.
“He did very well. He offered himself up at the end there. He really took initiative, injected himself in the game and got us over the gain line at a critical time,” Deans said.
“That’s the sort of great things we’re looking for from him. He didn’t wait out on the end and wait for others to serve him. He went looking for it and made a difference for his mates. It was good.”
Influential scrum-half Will Genia, who was named the official man-of-the-match, said he was determined to play in next week’s series decider in Sydney despite a troublesome knee.
“The knee is a little bit sore. I probably had a few issues after game one, but it is not going to keep me out of this,” he said.
Genia was the Wallaby who caught the ball when Leigh Halfpenny’s last gasp long-range penalty kick fell short of the mark after the bell and then he kicked it dead to seal the Wallabies’ victory.
“It is quite difficult and really stressful. But what a way to win – it makes it more special. The shoe was on the other foot. We were unlucky to miss a kick last week and it was their turn this week,” Genia said.
“We maintained ball pretty well, but we let ourselves down because we were knocking on possession, and easy possession as well. When we finally maintained field pressure we were good enough to get over the chalk.
“It was intense, it was incredibly intense in Melbourne. The one thing this Test showed is what a quality goalkicker can bring to a side. Christian really stepped up and nailed his kick to put us in front after that try.”