Matt Giteau matured as a player and a person during his four years in the international wilderness, writes MARK CASHMAN.
Those of you who frequent social media will know that Matt Giteau is in a pretty good place and has been for quite a while.
Over the past four years we’ve been introduced to his lovely wife Bianca, the sister of Aussie rules star Buddy Franklin, his two sons Levi and Kai, and seen the gobsmacking view from his backyard in Carqueiranne, overlooking the French port town of Toulon.
There have been Top 14 and European Cup victory shenanigans and in recent months his partner in crime from his Wallabies days, Drew Mitchell, often gets sighted in some unusual and often funny situations.
Rugby has found its proper place in his life and as another World Cup looms for the talented inside back, he couldn’t be happier.
‘I’ve got the balance right with my family and everything,’ says Giteau. ‘I’m enjoying it, loving it. The family is happy. Rugby has its rightful place in my life.’
Former Toulon teammate Jonny Wilkinson even pondered out loud in 2014 why any team, let alone a national one like the Wallabies, would let Giteau go so readily to ply his trade offshore. But that balance Giteau now talks about certainly hasn’t always been there and his exit from Australia in 2011, as he now freely admits, was messy and in some ways immature.
Giteau’s relationship with then Wallabies coach Robbie Deans had soured and the Kiwi-born coach left him out of Australia’s 2011 World Cup squad, preferring the safer options of Pat McCabe, Berrick Barnes and Ant Fainga’a.
It’s fair to say that Giteau was never Dean’s ‘cup of tea’, but the relationship spiralled out of control when the player missed what looked like a routine shot at goal in a Test against England in Sydney in 2010. Giteau sprayed the ball to the left of the posts and the TV cameras captured him putting his headgear on and his mouthguard back in with a smirk on his face.
‘It was more a nervous thing,’ Giteau remembers. ‘Things [with Deans] unravelled from there.’
Looking back on that time in the wake of his recall to the Wallabies fold earlier this year after a change in selection protocols by the Australian Rugby Union, Giteau believes he deserved to have been dropped at that time.
‘I’ve thought about it a lot and I think my form probably warranted it. Deans picked the squad he thought would win and I wasn’t included. I thought at the time that I deserved to be in the squad and I had every right to be there, but I probably didn’t. I wasn’t playing well enough. He wasn’t going to pick a squad on, “Oh, gee, I just don’t like this player”. I was bitter at the time but I had no right to be. So I’ve moved on.’
Giteau came to international rugby at barely 20 years of age, playing his first Test on the Wallabies end-of-year tour before he had even played Super Rugby in 2002. His first touch in a Test (against England at Twickenham) saw him drop the ball cold and those in and around the team remember his fragile state of mind in the dressing room after the match.
‘He was embarrassed about missing that first pass and upset that he may have had his one and only crack at playing for Australia,’ then Wallabies media manager Djuro Sen recalls.
‘Matt was the hottest thing in the game in Australia at the time, a bit of a young punk to be honest, and all the Super Rugby provinces wanted him on their team. So we all rallied around him and said, “Don’t worry about it, there are a few more Tests to come in your career”, and that was the case. He was quiet at first but once he earned his stripes in the team environment his real personality came out.’
Sen also remembers Giteau being taken under the wing of the vastly experienced Stephen Larkham in those early Wallabies days.
‘Bernie took a real interest in his development and I reckon it’s fair to say that Gits played his best rugby when he was on the field with him.’
Giteau went through a similar process when he arrived at Toulon in 2011 after quitting the game in Australia.
‘I started from what I thought was the bottom and just tried to improve and get the respect of the players and win things – that really humbled me,’ Giteau says.
But will his experience and familiarity with northern hemisphere rugby be an asset for the Wallabies when the World Cup rolls around?
‘Yeah, I think so. Definitely as far as knowing the right times to attack, looking at different opportunities, identifying moments in the game,’ Giteau says. ‘I don’t know if my actual skill level has improved a great deal, or if I can step better, run better or do different things.
But I think my decision-making, my timing, my game sense, knowing when my team is under the pump, what it needs, especially in those big games when the pressure comes, have all got better. So hopefully, if I’ve improved, it’s something I can bring to the group.’
In the meantime it’s all about coping with the physical nature of the way Wallabies coach Michael Cheika prepares his sides – and enjoying his second coming.
– This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine