You don’t play over 300 games of professional rugby without having a few personality clashes along the way.
That was certainly the case for Wallabies centurion Matt Giteau, who has spent time in Canberra, Perth, Toulon and now Tokyo, accumulating trophies and scoring points for teams throughout the world.
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For a man so integral to Australia’s World Cup plans in 2015 that the nation had to literally change its national-side selection rules, it’s almost hard to believe that there was a point in time when the talented playmaker wasn’t wanted at the Wallabies.
But that became the case not too long after Robbie Deans took over the head coaching role in 2008.
While Deans, fresh from a third successive victory as head coach of the Crusaders, nominated Giteau as his first-choice No. 10 when he first joined Australia’s cause, the experienced playmaker slowly fell out of favour with the Kiwi coach.
Giteau’s downfall coincided with his return to Canberra after a three-year playing stint with the Western Force.
“When I came back to the Brumbies after the Force was a pretty tough period, just because the club had changed a fair bit,” Giteau told RugbyPass from the confines of his isolation.
“A lot of senior players had left. That was also the time that I started to go on the outer with the Wallabies as well, with Robbie Deans.”
“That was probably the toughest period for me.”
Giteau had earned his first caps on tour with the Wallabies in 2002 under now-England coach Eddie Jones.
For the next few years, Giteau played alongside a number of already-established Wallabies legends – men like Sterling Mortlock, George Gregan and Stephen Larkham.
It was these experienced, elder states-men that set the standards in the squad while the newbies took a backseat and earned their stripes.
John Connolly took over from Jones in 2006 but lasted just two years in the job before he was replaced by Deans.
— Tom Vinicombe (@TomVinicombe) April 1, 2020
Connolly’s departure at the end of the 2007 World Cup – after the Wallabies were bundled out by England in the quarter-finals – also coincided with a number of the squad’s senior members calling time on their international careers, including Gregan and Larkham.
Their departures meant that Giteau, who had now accumulated over 40 caps for Australia, was now one of the nation’s more experienced operators.
That’s when the troubles first started.
“My view was the older brother always teaches the younger brother how to do things,” said Giteau. “Through experience, I always thought it was that way.
“It was hard for me because we’d often been told how to do things by the senior players – they led the culture.
“When Robbie came in, we had a lot of young guys and he wanted everyone on the same level, everyone to drive the standards, I suppose. But a lot of guys had come in and not really learnt anything yet.”
Deans named eight new players in his first squad, with a further four players capped throughout the year. Five further players had also played their first Test matches the year prior.
“A lot of young guys were coming in at the time and I don’t think I did enough to try and make those guys feel welcome,” Giteau said.
In 2008, Deans’ first year in charge, Giteau was handed the reins in the 10 jersey.
It was a significant change, given that he had spent the better part of his international career at inside centre, wedged between Larkham and Mortlock.
Still, it wasn’t exactly a massive ask – Giteau had already spent plenty of time in the pivot role at all levels of the game.
In fact, it was ironically when he was eventually moved back out to inside centre, two years later, that things started to go downhill for the recently reconverted Brumby.
While Giteau had once been an easy pick in the team, a run of underwhelming results coupled with a drop in form for Giteau himself saw his Test position come into question
From starting in the key playmaker role to being shifted out to 12 to suddenly finding himself outside the match-day squad completely, it wasn’t a good time for the Canberra-man.
Giteau is the first to acknowledge he didn’t cope well with the change.
“I think I handled it poorly,” he said. “I’d never been dropped – even if I was out of form, I was always picked in the Wallabies team.”
“When I was dropped, I didn’t handle it well at all – very immaturely.
“I still went out and trained and did my stuff but when around the group, thinking back, I reckon I was probably pretty toxic – not that I said anything, just in the way I moved and acted.”
Then came the coup de grâce, Giteau was dropped from the Wallabies squad at the worst possible time – immediately before the 2011 World Cup.
“That was probably the toughest period in my rugby career,” said Giteau.
Quade Cooper, who had already usurped Giteau in the 10 jersey, started every one of Australia’s games at the World Cup in the flyhalf role. Squad members Kurtley Beale, James O’Connor and Berrick Barnes were all also capable of covering No. 10 if necessary.
Former Wallaby Drew Mitchell isn't holding out hope for the short-term future.https://t.co/hb4O9a2l5b
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 2, 2020
Meanwhile, Deans opted for Pat McCabe, Anthony Fainga’a, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Barnes as the midfield options – leaving no space for Giteau, who had already signed a contract with Toulon, thus (at that point in time), shutting down any chances of a future recall to the national side.
While most players who missed out on selection would have to twiddle their thumbs until the new year, Giteau was able to resume playing with a new goal fairly quickly – but even that came with its own trials.
“When I first got to France, I’d been dropped and not picked in the World Cup squad so I felt like I had to prove myself and show that I was still good enough to play at that level with those guys,” Giteau said.
“That was tough as well.”
While Giteau struggled with Deans’ decision-making at the time, it’s something that he’s come to terms with in the almost-decade since.
“Certainly, there was no ambiguity at the time about our points of view,” Giteau said. “I think we both kind of knew where each other stood.
“But since then, I’ve seen him in Japan, shook hands after games and had a little chat. It’s all fine, I think. So much has happened since then. As a person, as a player, I’ve developed and moved on.
“That was a moment of growth, I suppose, because you learn from your mistakes. In that aspect, I don’t regret it. But I certainly do regret what happened.
“If I had my time again, I would’ve changed a lot of the things that I did.”
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