IT took a change of heart, a change of rules and two changes of coach before Matt Giteau was welcomed back into the Wallaby fold, ending an international rugby exile that lasted four years and a day.
On Sunday, Giteau and Australia captain Stephen Moore are expected to join an exclusive club by running out for their 100th Test appearances. Only six other Australians have played 100 or more Tests. Barring injury, both are set to start for Australia in the World Cup quarter-final against Scotland.
There were times last year when neither player thought he’d reach the milestone. Moore was injured in the first Test of the season, and didn’t play again in 2014. At that stage, Giteau had played the last of his 92 Tests in July 2011. It was a shock defeat by Samoa in Sydney that resulted in Giteau being axed from the Wallabies and not included in Robbie Deans’ World Cup squad for that year. Giteau moved to France to play for Toulon. Deans came and went, and so did Ewen McKenzie as Australia head coaches.
Michael Cheika became coach late last year, and the Australian Rugby Union later changed its criteria on eligibility for national-team selection, allowing foreign-based players – but only those with 60 or more Test caps – to be chosen.
Giteau was given the chance at an international comeback in July, and took it in a win over South Africa to start Australia’s title-winning campaign in the Rugby Championship. He has been a regular starter ever since.
“From the start, I’ve felt really welcome,” Giteau said. “It shows what sort of environment has been created here.”
The veteran playmaker, who turned 33 during the tournament, has played his last two Tests at Twickenham, featuring heavily in wins over England and Wales as Australia topped the toughest pool. He’ll be back at English rugby HQ for the quarter-finals, too, where his Test career began in November 2002.
“I certainly remember my debut. We lost by a point,” Giteau said. “I think I went on with about eight minutes to go. At the time, coach Eddie Jones had a score system where you got a point for every positive thing you did and you lost a point for every negative. I think I was the only player to finish with a minus. After that game, I never thought I’d get to 100. I didn’t think I’d get past one.”
Giteau was a replacement stand-off in nine of his first ten tests, a back-up to Stephen Larkham, who helped Australia win the 1999 World Cup title and is now the Wallabies’ backline coach. Not until after the 2003 World Cup, when Australia lost the final to England, did Giteau cement his spot in Australia’s starting XV. But even then, his versatility meant he switched between 10 and 12, and also had six Tests as a scrum-half.
He has started all his Tests since his return at inside centre, where his versatility allows him to act as a second-receiver and his kicking game provides the Wallabies with another option.
Moore, meanwhile, has been steadfast in the Australian front row since returning from injury this season. A no-nonsense hooker, he has helped the scrum shake off its image of being the weak link for Australia.
The Australians defended with such desperation while down to 13 men against Wales in the Pool A decider that they had rival players and coaches praising the efforts as heroic and courageous.
The 32-year-old Moore said it was nothing more than he’d expected, considering the bond in the team and the work that went into World Cup preparation. So his focus, naturally, is on the team’s quarter-final against Scotland.
“For me, it’s not really a week to be reflecting on things,” he said. “We’ve got a great opportunity to play in the quarter-final of a World Cup and that’s more than enough to play for.
“These personal achievements are things you probably look at when you hang up your boots.”