A refreshed Christian Lealiifano has four games to force his way back into Wallabies gold as the ACT Brumbies skipper prepares to make his Super Rugby comeback on Saturday.
Fairfax Media understands Lealiifano is on the Wallabies' selection radar as a genuine playmaker option for the Test series against Ireland in June, despite being rested for the past three weeks to manage fatigue.
A smiling Christian Lealiifano is back at ACT Brumbies training.
The Brumbies leader opened up about his health on Friday and needing to manage a "one-year-old blood system running around in a 30-year-old body" after being diagnosed with leukaemia two years ago.
He will return to the field for the Brumbies' crucial clash against the Melbourne Rebels at Canberra Stadium, with both teams desperate to end respective form slumps.
There will be Wallabies selection battles in almost every position to add spice to an already tense derby contest, but Lealiifano says his only focus is repaying the Brumbies for putting his health first.
"It was about managing [fatigue]. I was feeling all right and maybe then I took a bit of a downward turn," Lealiifano said.
"I was feeling a bit flat at training and a bit more tired than usual. We had to find a time [to rest] and as hard as it was with where the team is sitting, it was big decision from [coach Dan McKellar] to give me a break.
"I'm grateful for that, that he thought about my health first. It's given me time to refresh and I'm feeling really good from it.
"…The natural instinct of an athlete is you want to keep going and keep playing. But when I stepped back, looked at my health and saw specialists, they were a bit more cautious of being aware of when I'm going to be tired.
"Once they gave me that context [of a one-year-old blood system], it helped me realise I need to look after my body a bit more than what I was.
"I was trying to push as much as I could. Now I understand that and manage it as good as I can."
Lealiifano and the Brumbies have started talks about his future beyond this season, with a flexible arrangement to allow him to play in Japan or overseas between Super Rugby seasons being put forward as contract options.
Lealiifano was set to play in Japan in 2016, but he was diagnosed with leukaemia just days before flying to link with Suntory. He went into remission last year and then spent time playing for Ulster in Ireland.
He has shown glimpses of his best so far this season and Wallabies coaches will be keeping a close eye on his progress when he returns in a perfectly-timed boost for the Brumbies.
The Wallabies have limited flyhalf and inside centre options, which have been compounded by Quade Cooper being banished from Super Rugby to Brisbane's club competition.
Lealiifano looms as an attractive Test option as a back up to Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale, but the coaches want to see him take charge in the four games left before the squad is picked.
"As long as you're playing in Australia and hopefully playing well enough, [the Wallabies] is the next highest level," Lealiifano said.
"It's something I haven't thought about a lot to be honest. I've been worrying about my health and [the Brumbies] at the moment."
The Brumbies are trying to avoid three consecutive losses at home for the first time since 2011 as they cling to their playoff hopes.
Lealiifano is part of a returning trio alongside Rob Valetini and Lachlan McCaffrey to bolster the side for an Australian conference battle.
"We're coming off a couple of losses and that's been tough, but I think the group is taking some really good strides forwards in improving our game," Lealiifano said.
"We understand how important this game is as a group … to get out here in a big clash, those are the ones you want to be a part of."
SUPER RUGBY ROUND 13
Saturday: ACT Brumbies v Melbourne Rebels at Canberra Stadium, 7.45pm. Tickets available from Ticketek.
Brumbies: 15. Tom Banks, 14. Henry Speight, 13. Tevita Kuridrani, 12. Christian Lealiifano, 11. Andy Muirhead, 10. Wharenui Hawera, 9. Joe Powell, 8. Rob Valetini, 7. Tom Cusackm, 6. Lachlan McCaffrey, 5. Sam Carter, 4. Rory Arnold, 3. Allan Alaalatoa, 2. Folau Faingaa, 1. Scott Sio. Reserves: 16. Robbie Abel, 17. Faalelei Sione, 18. Ben Alexander, 19. Blake Enever, 20. Lolo Fakaosilea, 21. Matt Lucas, 22. Jordan Jackson-Hope, 23. Lausii Taliauli.
Rebels: 15. Jack Maddocks, 14. Semisi Tupou, 13. Tom English, 12. Reece Hodge, 11. Marika Koroibete, 10. Jack Debreczeni, 9. Michael Ruru, 8. Amanaki Mafi, 7. Colby Faingaa, 6. Angus Cottrell, 5. Adam Coleman, 4. Geoff Parling, 3. Sam Talakai, 2. Anaru Rangi, 1. Fereti Saaga. Reserves: 16. Nathan Charles, 17. Tetera Faulkner, 18. Jermaine Ainsley, 19. Matt Philip, 20. Sam Jeffries, 21. Lopeti Timani, 22. Harrison Goddard, 23. Billy Meakes.
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