Jonny Wilkinson may not have known what he was unleashing when he mused aloud near the end of last year that Matt Giteau was such an “exceptional” player, that he didn’t quite know how Australian rugby could have ever let one of the most gifted playmakers in Wallaby annals disappear to work his wonders in Europe.
At the time, the Wallabies’ policy was still to ignore the claims for any player operating on foreign shores but the continued tales of how the fully matured talent of their grown-up Kid Dynamite was now exploding all over the fields of France was evidently making them feel as though snubbing Giteau was practically a criminal act of neglect.
In Toulon, he had become “L’indispensable Monsieur Giteau”, the driving force behind a march to a third successive European club title. He had been voted the best player in the whole of French rugby. The town adored him, and his revered clubmate Wilkinson’s bewilderment at how his brilliant old rival had slipped through the Wallaby net must have helped persuade Australian Rugby Union administrators, at that point overseeing a crisis in the underachieving national team, to think again.
So it was that only this April, they decided to allow “overseas-based players who have made a significant contribution to Australian rugby” to become eligible again.
It was, they said, “a decision that recognises the changing dynamics of a global rugby market for professional players”. Hmmm. What they didn’t say was that it was actually a blatantly desperate bid to recall the best footballer in Australia. They do not call it the “Giteau Law” over there for nothing. And was it a decision that could win Australia the World Cup?
Giteau is back, playing quite beautifully, feeling like Kid Dynamite all over again but marshalling that lovely back line like Wyatt Earp.
Tomorrow, he plays his 100th test in the World Cup quarter-final against Scotland and while he’s not sure he is playing the best rugby of his career, at 33, there are plenty around him who swear he is, who believe he has become the linchpin of Michael Cheika’s reinvented Wallabies.
What Giteau will concede, though, is that he is treasuring every single moment of this ‘second chance’ at life in the green and gold. He thinks back to a dozen years ago when he reached a World Cup final at 20 and couldn’t believe how simple that seemed.
Giteau was then, as his old midfield partner and now skills coach Stephen Larkham recalled this week, the fat-faced kid with blond hair tips, two different coloured shoes and one outrageous gift.
“It all happened really fast for me. I’d played a couple of the easier games and I was on the bench for the bigger ones, but it seemed like really easy. I played 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there and, bang, all of a sudden we’re in the final,” recalled Giteau. “While I was devastated at losing that final, I thought ‘it’s okay, we’ll win the next one’ but nothing happens that easily, which is why the one thing I’ve learned since I’ve been back is that you’ve got to cherish every game and play each one like it’s your last.”
In 2007, just as with the ‘boot of God’ four years earlier, he had to give best to Wilkinson’s marksmanship in the quarter-final in Marseille.
By 2011, coach Robbie Deans, absurdly, ditched him and, to add insult to injury, broke the news to him in a room full of other people.
It was a bitter split and Giteau will now accept that he could have taken the rejection better in public. Yet, you could understand his anger. All those lost years in a Wallaby shirt. Australia played 56 tests while he was exiled in France; Giteau could today be the most capped player in international history with over 150 caps if not for the decision of one New Zealander.
Yet France helped reinvent and reinvigorate him too. Beginning new family life in the idyllic hills of Carqueiranne on the Cote d’Azur and becoming a doting dad to two boys put rugby into new perspective and it almost felt as if he was starting his career afresh, having to win the respect of Toulon’s galacticos.
He learned new levels of professionalism too, playing alongside Wilkinson, a player he once thought was over-rated until appreciating his true excellence at Toulon.
In return, Wilkinson’s description of him as “exceptional” quite humbled Giteau, who has never been shy in admitting that he has taken advice from England’s greatest rugby hero about what it takes to win the Webb Ellis Cup.
If that advice contributed to Australia’s comprehensive defeat of England in the group stages and to Giteau’s swan-diving try which finally sent the hosts packing, then he smiles that he is happy to make Jonny feel as guilty as sin. The mischievous Giteau just can’t resist having a little dig at his oh so perfect mate.
Yet it could be only the start of the prodigal’s glorious return. Fly-half Bernard Foley is playing better than ever before. Why? Well, the bloke on his outside may be the clue.
“He’s just so good, a great communicator, he can step in and run the show from first receiver if necessary, or from second fly-half, and his left foot is invaluable because it gives those extra options in keeping defences and backfields guessing,” explains Foley. Scott Fardy, in the engine room, just shrugs: “He’s got an aura about him.” Yes, it radiates from him, like a bloke who recognises this is the time of his life. A year ago, he was at Twickenham for the Australia- England game, telling his old Wallaby war stories to starstruck corporate hospitality punters. Now he reckons he cannot quite believe he is back there, writing new ones week in, week out.
“I could never have believed back then I’d be here now,” he sighed.
With the best of his comeback tale still to be penned on Halloween, the day of the final? That would be spooky.
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