The ACT Brumbies are confident Christian Lealiifano can return as the chief playmaker next season but assistant coach Peter Hewat has emphasised every position is up for grabs.
Lealiifano has been on loan at Irish club Ulster since early September and Hewat said the club have been closely monitoring his progress in Europe.
Less than 12 months after being diagnosed with leukemia and undergoing chemotherapy, Lealiifano made an incredible return to Super Rugby in the Brumbies quarterfinal against the Hurricanes in July.
The 19-Test Wallaby was eager to get more minutes in the legs and has started all 10 games for Ulster since arriving at the club nine weeks ago, including two appearances in the European Rugby Champions Cup.
Lealiifano has been in red-hot form and led Ulster’s rise up the Pro14 ladder, with the veteran flyhalf kicking a match-winning conversion at the death against Benetton on Saturday.
The 30-year-old was replaced by Brumbies rookie No. 10 Wharenui Hawera this year but Lealiifano will take the playmaking reigns when he returns to the capital in early January.
Hewat said the club has been in constant contact with Lealiifano but that it was undecided if he’ll play five-eighth or inside centre when he returns for his 10th season at the Brumbies.
“Positions are up for grabs and he can play both 10 and 12, but we had some guys come in last year who got some really good experience in those positions when he wasn’t there,” Hewat said.
“We’re going to play around with a few combinations but we’re not locking anything in at the moment, every spot is definitely up for grabs.
“We’ve been monitoring Christian from afar, obviously he has a lot going on over there but we’re in constant contact and Dan [McKellar] is giving him all the new information.”
The second major injection for the Brumbies 2018 season is star flanker David Pockock, who will join the squad alongside Wallabies Henry Speight, Tevita Kuridrani, Joe Powell, Scott Sio, Allan Alaalatoa and Blake Enever in January.
An extended squad will train until Christmas and Hewat said it’s a chance for fringe players to make an impression and stake their claim for a spot.
“The Wallabies guys are away and we’ve still got a few guys overseas so everyone is working hard to get into that top 23 for round one,” Hewat said.
“The guys here are putting their best foot forward and nobody is locked into positions, we’re really making that message clear – you train well, you play well, you’ll play.
“We’re only two weeks in but there are things we’re slowly getting the guys to change from last year and they’re really willing to learn, it’s exciting times.”
One of those players keen to force his way into the Brumbies starting XV is scrumhalf recruit Matt Lucas, who made 33 appearances for the NSW Waratahs over the past five seasons.
The classy No. 9 is a former n junior representative but battled for game time at the Waratahs under Wallaby Nick Phipps and will now compete with another n representative in Powell.
“There’s no denying I sat behind [Nick] Phippsy for a while up in New South Wales but I don’t think anything changes in my mind, I pushed up there and got a few starts and it’ll be the same down here,” Lucas said.
“Joey had a great year last year, especially under a lot of pressure when Tomas [Cubelli] injured himself early, he did really well and is away with the Wallabies at the moment.
“Peter and Dan have said to me that no positions are locked in… you’re represented by how you train and perform, so that’s really refreshing to hear.
“The Brumbies as an organisation that always make players better and pride themselves on that, before I came here I spoke to a lot of past players and they couldn’t have spoken any higher of the place.
“It does fill me with a lot of confidence that I’m going to grow as a player and if you’re willing to put in the hard work, the Brumbies have a habit of really improving guys.”