If you’re looking for a quintessential example of the modern-day rugby professional, then you need look no further than Matt Giteau.
The Canberra-born utility back spent his formative years with the Brumbies before heading west to join Perth’s Western Force in 2007.
After three years with the Force, Giteau ended his Super Rugby career back home with the Brumbies then headed to the Northern Hemisphere to spend some time with French heavy-spenders Toulon.
After six seasons and three European titles in the south of France, Giteau relocated to Tokyo to wind up his career with Suntory Sungoliath.
It’s a globe-trotting journey to rival Odysseus’ – and one which has probably now come to a premature end thanks to the current coronavirus pandemic.
“It was always decided that it was going to be my last year,” Giteau revealed to RugbyPass from his home in Australia.
“My kids are getting older now and it’s just harder and harder the time you spend away.”
Giteau’s two boys were both born during his French sojourn and they, along with Giteau’s wife Bianca, have spent the better part of his spell with Suntory living in Australia.
— Tom Vinicombe (@TomVinicombe) April 2, 2020
Thankfully, the Top League’s lengthy breaks haven’t made it too difficult for the family to remain connected, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been tough.
“Being in Japan… I enjoy it and I enjoy the culture; I love the team, I love the people but if I were to do it again, it’d feel like a really selfish decision for me,” Giteau said.
And there’s no doubt that Japan has been an incredible time for the globe-trotter.
“The people there are great, the food’s unbelievable, the language is impossible – I’ve never really got a handle on it,” said Giteau. “But yeah, I’ve really enjoyed it.”
From a rugby point of view, Giteau’s was shocked by something that many of Japan’s recent Top League migrants are still blown away by.
“At Toulon, I was one of the fitter guys and then once I got to Suntory I was at the back of the pack,” he said. “It was intense.
“The physicality is not the same but the amount of running and the intensity they do at training is something else. That was probably the hardest thing to readjust.
“That first, initial shock of the fitness and the amount of running that they expected – especially in my position, I found that pretty tough.”
Giteau had heard good things about the Suntory club from his former Wallabies and Brumbies teammate George Smith, but Smith had never mentioned the tough fitness regime – not that it would have made a difference to Giteau’s expectations.
“George has never been a fit guy,” said Giteau. “If he ever told me it was tough, it could be any team he’s at, puffing along.
“For some reason, he’s game fit, but the running fitness he always struggles with, so it was never something he really told me about.”
Giteau and Smith’s relationship dates back to Giteau’s initial years with the Brumbies in Super Rugby.
Sydney-born Smith was signed by the Brumbies for the 1999 season and Giteau joined him at the Eddie Jones’ coached side two years later.
Smith’s arrival at the Canberra side coincided with a rise in the Brumbies’ fortunes. They jumped from 10th to 5th place in Smith’s first year, made the final in 2000 and then, in Giteau’s first year with the side, won their first-ever Super Rugby title.
Three years later, they were crowned champions once more.
Giteau spent eight years with the Brumbies altogether, sandwiched around his three-year stint with the Force, before heading to France in 2011.
Despite the likely move from Japan back to Australia and the fact that his body is still holding up well, Giteau isn’t planning on lacing up the boots for a second send-off with the Brumbies.
“I still support the Brumbies,” Giteau said. “I still love watching the boys plays.
“But Super Rugby, for me, as soon as I left… It didn’t interest me anymore, other than as a spectator.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 20, 2020
“There was never one game where I was watching Super Rugby and thinking ‘gee I wouldn’t mind playing this game today’ – not once.”
Could that be because the playmaker was graced with two titles so early in his career?
“Yeah, potentially,” said Giteau.
“I don’t know, it’s a hard one to answer hypothetically. Early on, I was fortunate to win one. That’s a hard one… I suppose so – although, I never won a Bledisloe and when I watch those, I don’t feel like playing those anymore.”
Giteau further poured cold water on any chances of a miraculous return for the Wallabies.
“It’s similar now when I watch Test footy,” he said. “I was doing a bit of corporate work at the World Cup and you get there and the buzz and excitement around it is actually quite cool and you feel like playing – but you forget about that week that went into getting ready for the game.
“As soon as you remember that mental prep and everything that you need to do, you very quickly felt comfortable being just a spectator.”
And while Giteau must remind himself sometimes of the tougher moments in order to not get too nostalgic about the past, his 20-year professional career is paved with incredible memories.
“I remember pretty much every game I’ve played,” Giteau said.
“You remember the emotions you go through, you remember getting picked for teams. I think that type of buzz never really goes away, no matter how long you’re there. Having a good win with the team, celebrating with the boys or a special move coming off… Those type of things, you never lose that enjoyment for rugby.
“Even though I’m paid to play sport, it’s always been about the fun and enjoying it.”
The focus is now shifting for Giteau, however, with the time spent away from his boys becoming tougher and tougher.
“I’ve never known any different; I’ve always had them with me,” Giteau said. “They were born in France, we were obviously living together in France, they came over to Japan for a year.”
“When they first left, it was pretty hard – but I’ve always loved footy and I knew that I was making this commitment and sacrifice for the right reasons for my family.
“Still, that was probably the only period where I wondered if it was really worth it. Like, I love footy, but is it worth the loneliness so much? Because you have a lot of downtime.
“There’s no doubt that it was tough at times but, ultimately, I’m getting paid to played rugby. Again, that perspective comes back to it. If you allow yourself to play the victim, it’s very easy, so I just try to stay as positive as I can and enjoy my rugby – which I was able to do.
And while Giteau will be disappointed to have his final season of professional rugby cut short, the opportunity to spend more time with his friends and family in Australia is the obvious, massive silver lining.
“It’s not ideal but there are more pressing issues in the world – like I said, perspective’s a big thing.
“While I would’ve liked to end it differently, playing footy and trying to give everything I could for Suntory… If this is the end, then this is the end.”
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