Christian Leali'ifano wins RUPA Medal For Excellence

By Pete Fairbairn, 07.12.16

ACT Brumbies playmaker Christian Leali’ifano has won the 2016 RUPA Medal for Excellence, being voted by his peers as the individual who has shown the best performance, leadership, consistency and discipline, both on and off the field, across the international and domestic Rugby season.

The RUPA Medal for Excellence is the pinnacle of player Awards in Australian Rugby with the ten finalists comprising of the winner and runner-up in each Super Rugby team’s Players’ Player Awards, and the winner was announced at The Ivy at the annual Volvo-RUPA Awards Lunch.

Leali’ifano was voted the Brett Robinson Brumbies’ Players Player of the Year at the Brumbies Awards night in September, after co-captaining his side to victory in the Australian Super Rugby conference in 2016. The 29-year-old, who has amassed 117 Super Rugby caps and over 800 points since joining the Brumbies in 2007, missed just five minutes of the Brumbies’ entire Super Rugby campaign as they topped the Australian conference.

The 6th highest overall point scorer in the 2016 Super Rugby season with 163 (3 tries, 41 conversions & 22 penalty goals), Christian also completed a Certificate IV in New Small Business and was instrumental in the leadership of the Brumbies’ Pasifika players’ development program. He is a ‘champion’ for the Canberra Domestic Violence Crisis Service, and this year he won an ACT Government Violence Prevention Award.

Speaking via video from Melbourne, Leali’ifano thanked his peers and paid tribute to all of Australia’s professional Rugby players.

“I’m truly, truly humbled and honoured to receive such an Award,” Leali’ifano said. “Congratulations to all of the other nominees; I feel like this is probably an award for all of us, and the great work we do in the community to grow the game around the country.”

Christian, who was diagnosed with leukaemia in August of this year and has been undergoing treatment in Melbourne, thanked the Rugby community for their support since his illness was diagnosed.

“I want to thank everybody for all of their support through this journey this little man and I are on at the moment,” he said. “It definitely means a lot and we’re all so grateful for your thoughts and prayers.”

The RUPA Medal for Excellence was officially accepted on Christian’s behalf by his agent, former Queensland Reds star Clinton Schifcofske.

Fellow utility back Reece Hodge, from the Melbourne Rebels, capped an outstanding maiden professional campaign with the Newcomer of the Year award. It’s the third year in a row that a Rebels player has won the award, with Hodge following in the footsteps of his Club (and Wallaby) teammates Sean McMahon (2014) and Sefanaia Naivalu (2015).

Hodge finished the season with 10 Wallaby caps to his name and 2 tries at international level, after joining the Rebels on the back of a stellar 2015 Buildcorp NRC campaign with the Sydney Rays. He made an instant impact on his Super Rugby debut as he scored 20 points in the Rebel’s Round One victory in Perth against the Force, including 2 tries.

It was a sign of things to come for the dynamic utility back, who played in almost every possible backline position for the Rebels during the 2016 Super Rugby season, finishing the season as their leading tryscorer with 9 tries (a Club record), before making his Test debut at Eden Park against the All Blacks. Away from Rugby, Reece completed his Diploma of Business in 2016, and he is working towards the completion of his Bachelor of Physiotherapy.

Waratahs star Michael Hooper backed up October’s John Eales Medal triumph as he was voted the winner of the Taylors Wines People’s Choice Wallaby of the Year award, just pipping Bernard Foley and David Pocock in a nail-biting finish. Hooper has been a shining light for the Wallabies in 2016, playing 14 of a possible 15 Tests and edging past 60 caps for his country despite being just 25 years of age. A constant threat at the breakdown and excitement machine in attack, with skills more akin to a backline star than a back rower, Hooper also won his fourth straight Matt Burke Cup as the Waratahs’ Players’ Player in 2016.

On the back of an outstanding 2015-2016 season which saw the Australian Women’s Rugby Sevens team win both the World Championship and the inaugural Gold Medal at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Charlotte Caslick has edged out Chloe Dalton to win her second straight Women’s Rugby Sevens Players’ Player of the Year Award.

Caslick was named in the Tournament Dream Team in 2 of the 4 World Series events she played in, scoring 9 tries in the process. At the Olympic Games in Rio, Charlotte was the team’s equal top try-scorer with 7, and she was named in the Tournament Dream Team.

Caslick won’t have to look far for somebody to celebrate with, as her partner Lewis Holland was crowned the Australian Men’s Rugby Sevens Players’ Player of the Year, ahead of Allan Fa’alava’au. 2016 Holland play in 5 world series events and at the Rio Olympics, with an injury-interrupted season not limiting his output when he was available. Selected in the Tournament Dream Team in Sydney, Holland also won the Players’ Player Award there, in Dubai and in Vancouver. Holland twice scored 5 tries in a tournament, ending with a season tally of 82 points.

Completing a great day for the Australian Rugby Sevens program, Alicia Quirk became the first non-Super Rugby player to win the Academic Achievement Award since its’ inception in 2011. In 2016, Quirk managed to balance her studies and Rugby with aplomb as she completed her Bachelor of Physiotherapy with Charles Sturt University, including the completion of nearly a month’s practical work at Westmead Hospital.

Alicia also learnt Portuguese in preparation for the Olympic Games, where she played a key role in Australia’s Gold Medal win, and put her physiotherapy skills to the test just last week as she looked after injured teammate Brooke Anderson at the Dubai Rugby Sevens while the team physio was occupied with another player.

Western Force star and RUPA Player Director Matt Hodgson saw his wonderful commitment to mental health awareness recognised as he took out the 2016 RUPA Community Service Award. Hodgson made a made a significant contribution charity LIVIN WA in 2016, raising awareness for mental health and imploring people who are struggling to speak out and ask for help. An Ambassador and State Committee member for the charity, Hodgson has gone above and beyond by touring remote mining sites to spread the LIVIN mantra, as well as also dedicating time to other causes including the Rise UP Charity Dinner.

Finally, NSW Country Eagles scrumhalf Jake Gordon was crowned the Buildcorp NRC Player of the Year, with his peers voting for him as he played a pivotal role in his side’s progression to the Grand Final in 2016. Gordon scored 9 tries as his side topped the competition for points scored, and the 23-year-old will be looking to press on and make his Super Rugby debut with the Waratahs in 2017 after showing his capabilities at NRC level.

The Volvo-RUPA Awards Lunch, one of the highlights of the Australian Rugby calendar, allows RUPA’s members to acknowledge the significant achievements of their peers on and off the field. With a who’s who of Australian Rugby in attendance among a room of over 400 people including players, coaches, sponsors, media and other stakeholders of the game, it is seen as the ideal way to celebrate and reflect upon the Rugby season as the calendar year comes to a close.

Over 20 players from Australia’s five Super Rugby franchises and the Australian Men’s and Women’s Rugby Sevens program who had been in attendance at #RUPACamp in Coogee since Monday were also in attendance, symbolising a crucial stage in welcoming them to the Australian Rugby family as professional players.

2016 RUPA-ASRU Scholarship winner Yirrbi Jaffer-Williams performed the traditional acknowledgment to country, with the lunch hosted by Fairfax Media’s Georgina Robinson, RUPA President Benn Robinson and Australian Women’s Rugby Sevens star Tiana Penitani.

The Rugby Union Players' Association was incorporated in October 1995 in direct response to the professionalism of Rugby and was established to promote and safeguard the interests of its members, namely the professional Rugby players of Australia.

Currently 100% of Australia’s full time professional players are members of RUPA.

Pete Fairbairn
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