Hailing from St Edmund’s College, Canberra, and son to a rugby league great, Matt Giteau grew up in an environment that would foster a long and glittering sporting career, albeit in rival code rugby union. Although not over yet, the 33-year-old utility back looks to have played his last international test after a devastating ankle syndesmosis injury in Australia’s 42-8 Bledisloe Cup loss to New Zealand.
As a fresh faced 20-year-old Giteau would be named by coach Eddie Jones for his Wallabies debut in 2002 against England, after already having represented Australia in Schoolboys, Under 21s and Sevens. Although ultimately losing by a point, ‘Kid Dynamite’ was honoured to have had a chance at wearing the green and gold, “even to just once be able to sing the national anthem and represent your friends and family and country, that’s very special.” But Giteau didn’t just represent his country once; he would go on to represent it over 100 times.
The following year, starting at fly-half during the 2003 Rugby World Cup (RWC), Giteau would cement his entrance at international level with a hat-trick against Namibia. The tournament would also see him come off the bench during the final in Australia’s painstaking loss to England from an extra-time drop goal executed by the boot of Johnny Wilkinson. Over a decade later Giteau would become Wilkinson’s teammate at Top 14 club Toulon and express gratitude towards the English stalwart, “he’s still having an influence on me…the way he controlled the game allowed me to play more freely, and that would help me settle into France before I could speak the language.”
2004 would prove another development season for Giteau, helping the Wallabies secure a win against world champions England with an accurate kicking boot during a successful European tour. Wallabies legend and then-captain George Gregan praised the youngster for his versatility in the backs and described the tour as a coming of age for Giteau, “Guys like Matty Giteau put their hand up having to change positions, that was an amazing effort, kicked a really good goal under pressure”. His strong performances were also recognised by the International Rugby Board (IRB) earning him a nomination for the 2004 IRB Player of the Year. While Giteau’s 2005 and early 2006 international seasons were rocked with injury he was back in full swing for the 2006 Tri Nations Series. Playing inside centre under new coach John Connolly, Giteau crossed the line twice in a record 49-0 win over the Springboks in Brisbane earning him the man of the match title. Later in the year Giteau made a switch to scrum-half throughout the Wallabies’ tour of Europe, scoring a try against Wales and exemplifying a reliable kicking boot with 3 conversions and a penalty goal.
In 2007 Giteau was named in a squad that would take him to his second Rugby World Cup where he would celebrate a milestone in gaining his 50th international cap. Moving back to inside centre, Giteau scored in Australia’s victories over Wales and Fiji, leading the Wallabies through the pool stage. In the quarterfinal however history would repeat itself as Australia exited the competition following a loss to England, once again at the boot of Wilkinson. 2007 would also see the exit of Wallabies icon, and playmaker, Stephen Larkham from international rugby leaving Giteau to be appointed as Australia’s new fly-half under his third test coach Robbie Deans. In 2008 Giteau capitalised on his new position playing at 10 against Ireland and France in the mid year tests and in all six games during the Tri Nations Series. Highlighting the series for the Wallabies was a 34-22 win against the All Blacks in Sydney and a 27-15 defeat of South Africa in Durban with Giteau’s kicking playing a crucial role. While 2009 had mixed results for the Wallabies Giteau was the Tri-Nations leading try scorer and later took out Australian rugby’s highest individual annual award, the John Eales Medal.
The Australian national team saw a more successful 2010 Tri-Nations series with a rare away win against South Africa in Bloemfontein awarding them the Mandela Plate. Later in the year, after an almost three year wait, the Wallabies would once again defeat the All Blacks in a nail-biting contest played in Hong Kong. However for Giteau the international season had already been tainted due to a missed kick in front of the posts earlier in the year. The Wallabies fell to England and Giteau described it as “probably the most embarrassing thing in my career”. Out of nerves or embarrassment Giteau reacted to the kick with a “little smile” which he believed triggered an irreversible tension between himself and Deans. Their relationship continued to unravel in 2011 when Deans ordered Giteau to fly from Canberra to Sydney only to be told he would not be named in that year’s World Cup squad. “I was made to feel old and that I was finished,” Giteau said, “The reason I was given was…they couldn’t find room for me. If there was respect I wouldn’t be hearing it in the team room, in front of the physios”. In poor fashion Deans had denied the Australian team valuable experience and consistency, “It was Matt Giteau removed from the Wallabies set-up,” teammate Adam Ashley-Cooper stated, “Looking back, it was something that should never have happened.” To the disappointment of many Australians, it was then time for Giteau to pack up and leave for powerhouse Toulon.
Skip forward four years to 2015 and things in the rugby world have changed: The Tri-Nations has become The Rugby Championship, the scrum has a new set of rules and Michael Cheika has taken the top job at the Wallabies. Cheika would play an integral role in Australian rugby after successfully pushing for overseas based Australian players to be eligible for the national team, which had previously been reserved for Australian Super Rugby players. The policy change adopted the name ‘Giteau’s Law’ as the new rule was seen to had been created primarily to bring Giteau back into the Wallabies for the 2015 RWC. The Australian rugby community welcomed Giteau back, both for the depth he adds to the game and for the novelty of seeing him play again since departing Super Rugby where he represented the ACT Brumbie and Western Force. Under a healthy relationship with new coach Cheika, Giteau was brought back into the Australian side helping them to gain a 24-20 victory over the Springboks, and a 27-19 win over the All Blacks before being named in the 2015 World Cup squad. From Kid Dynamite to Wallabies veteran Giteau was a key player in Australia making the 2015 RWC finals, scoring his 30th international try as part of Australia’s win against England. Unfortunately a head knock saw Giteau ruled out during the opening stages of the final in which the Wallabies ultimately lost 17-34 to the All Blacks.
Upset by the way his World Cup campaign ended Giteau accepted an opportunity from Cheika to once again don the green and gold in the 2016 Rugby Championship, “I thought the World Cup was probably my last game for my country but just the way it ended for me, it left a bit of a bitter taste.” Signalling what playing for Australia meant to him Giteau took a cut from his Toulon paycheque in order to compete in the series, “For me, there’s a little bit of money that I’m sacrificing but I’m happy to do that for my country.” Eleven minutes into the first test however Giteau was forced from the field after falling awkwardly on his ankle in a ruck. The next morning Cheika confirmed the worst, ruling him out of the Championship to the disappointment of a nation, a nation that Giteau has made proud. Rugby fans worldwide will miss watching Giteau’s tactical maturity and ability to orchestrate tries on the international stage but with no regrets, Giteau has again returned to France where the Toulon jersey is likely to be his last.