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Thread: Million Dollar Baby

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    Senior Player Contributor Evie's Avatar
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    Million Dollar Baby

    Million dollar baby
    * May 26, 2007 from The Australian
    * He's just 24 but he's the hottest property in rugby. As the Australian team gears up for the Rugby World Cup, Wayne Smith looks at why Matt Giteau is worth the big bucks

    The clipped voice of the British TV commentator is charged with the drama of the moment. "This is a real wild card," he announces as the camera pans to the sideline at Twickenham where a baby-faced, black-gloved youth in a Wallabies jersey stands fidgeting, a stray tuft of hair incongruously poking up through his gold headgear.

    “Matt Giteau, the son of the former Australian rugby league legend, Ron Giteau. And what a start for him to his international career. That’s faith in this young man, throwing him into this atmosphere, seven minutes left, one point behind.”

    The game hangs in the balance. Australia, still nominally the world champions in the November of 2002, trail England, who will succeed them as world champions one year later in Sydney, by 32-31. It is the crossover moment of two great sides and at this most desperate juncture, a beardless boy newly turned 20, all of 76kg and without a single minute of Super-12 rugby to his credit, is thrust out into the intersection and asked to direct traffic.

    Up to this moment, Giteau has been praying for the match to finish with him still snug in his tracksuit. But then Jason Weber, the team trainer, presses his headset tight to his ear to hear coach Eddie Jones’ instructions above the roar of the crowd, nods, then turns to the reserves bench. “Gits, you’re on.”

    A chill cuts him to his very marrow, a chill that for once can’t be blamed on the icy gales that whistle through this vast and venerable cathedral of rugby. “I didn’t want to go on,” Giteau recalls. “I wasn’t ready for that sort of pressure and when I went on, I was way out of my depth.”

    It shows. His nervy first kick is launched almost vertically, stalling the Wallabies in mid-stride. Two early passes miss their targets, bouncing teasingly in the face of the onrushing England defence. And even when Giteau bravely cleans up some untidy play and launches himself against a welcoming slab of mud-splattered English forwards, he undoes his good work by spilling the ball.

    The match ends with Australia still one point in arrears. An era has ended. The Golden Child couldn’t save the day. Afterwards, Jones asks Ron Giteau what he thinks of his son’s performance. “Awful,” he replies.

    FORTY TESTS LATER AND AS far removed from Twickenham as it is possible to get – emotionally, meteorologically or geographically – Giteau is ambling to his favourite café at Perth’s Cottesloe Beach, a stone’s throw from his apartment. In place of the oversized gold jersey he is wearing an undersized T-shirt. (Correction. The shirt would have fitted the old him perfectly, but he now has a fabric-straining chest and sleeve-popping biceps, courtesy of five years of intensive gym work.)

    He’s not the slender Golden Child any more. Now he’s the Six Million Dollar Man, the title headline writers bestowed on him, inaccurately or at least prematurely, after he signed with the Perth rugby club Western Force in 2005. Giteau is rumoured to earn about $1.5 million a year in salary and third-party sponsorship deals for his three-year contract, which could also include an option for future years. At least $170,000 a year would come straight from the Western Force, with a further $500,000 or so from the Australian Rugby Union. The package makes him possibly the highest paid footballer of any code in the country.

    If that’s true, he appears to have come to terms with it, even if both he and his father were agog as the bids from the Wild, Wild West to lure him away from the ACT Brumbies kept getting more and more outrageous. “Dad, they’ve gone again,” Ron Giteau recalls one conversation beginning.

    “What are we talking about?” he asked, searching for a number. “This,” said his son, indicating a figure approaching the upper reaches of the stratosphere. “F--king hell,” said Ron.

    Twice during his own professional rugby league career Ron had moved clubs – from Sydney’s Western Suburbs to Easts and then on to the Canberra Raiders – for more money. But never money on a scale like this. “I’m from the old era and I think he’s overpaid,” he says. “But good luck to him. I’d rather see him overpaid than struggling.”

    The irony is that back home in Canberra, where he grew up, Matt Giteau could not have taken a casual stroll without running the gauntlet of autograph hunters or picture-takers; but in AFL-mad Perth, he is as close to anonymous as he can be in Australia. The Force may have gained a foothold in the West in the two seasons since its entry to an expanded Super 14 competition (the rugby union championship comprising 14 of the best provincial teams from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa), but this is Aussie rules heartland and rugby stars generally can dispense with the “don’t-bother-me” wraparound sunnies.

    Still, he doesn’t quite make it to the cafe without being hailed. It’s Dunny, the local surf shop proprietor, who a week earlier has given him a surfboard and now is seeking some feedback. The two plunge into an animated discussion about the relative merits of boards and surfing spots.

    Clearly Giteau, having plucked up the courage to leave behind the landlocked national capital, has been making the most of what Perth has to offer.

    Giteau’s anonymity doesn’t seem to extend to the cafe waitresses, either. They hover, friendly and flirtatious, even when Giteau’s girlfriend, Bianca Franklin, arrives to join him for lunch. Tall and tanned, she is an athlete in her own right, a champion netballer, and the sister of Hawthorn AFL footballer Lance Franklin. So even with Giteau’s elevated standing in the rugby world (which she wasn’t aware of when they first met at a netball game in 2003), having such a brother pretty much innoculates her against football fandom. “I had no idea who Matt was, so I don’t see him as a sporting idol,” she says. “What attracted me to him is that he’s a very cheeky guy with a very cheeky smile. He looks like he’s up to mischief.”

    Through all of this, Giteau maintains an expression of embarrassed, wide-eyed innocence. Bianca, Perth-raised but Melbourne-based, notes that she is taking advantage of an injury break to visit him. “I have to choose between him and netball.” Giteau looks up, his face creasing in a cheeky smile.

    He seems perfectly relaxed in her company but then, as Western Force coach John Mitchell observes, Giteau seems perfectly relaxed in just about any situation, on or off the field. “He looks like he has great balance,” says Mitchell, referring to far more than Giteau’s silky ball-running. “He’s very comfortable in a corporate environment, very comfortable in a big group.”

    Credit here to Giteau’s former Wallabies kicking coach, Ben Perkins, an eccentric by any standards but one who won the respect and close friendship of former team captain John Eales, and has done the same with the young man he forecasts is about to become the Wallabies’ next long-term leader. “I told him a couple of years ago that I wanted him to start thinking about whether he wanted to be captain,” Perkins recollects. “I said, ‘You’re the sort of player who leads by example and they make the best leaders. If you’re going to fulfil your potential, the captaincy is the ultimate step.’”

    In one sense Perkins has groomed the son of working class parents for the role, introducing him to everything from the poetry of American Carl Sandburg to Renaissance architecture – with a little help from last year’s Test against Italy in Rome. But in practical terms, it just happened. They hung out together on Wallaby tours and Perkins is enlightening if often enigmatic company.

    Either way, it all comes in handy in WA, where rugby’s best chance of expanding its beachhead is to capitalise on its corporate links. Giteau, all of 24, is the best way in. Business heavyweights, impressed by his ease in moving from breakfast speech to boardroom lunch to beating back the enemy hordes at night at Subiaco, are queuing up to mentor him. It’s a long-term investment for all concerned.

    Mitchell is one of the few who know the details of Giteau’s fabled contract and he couldn’t be happier with the deal, not just because the Force, with Giteau running the attack, came within a whisker of the play-offs this year after finishing stone last without him the previous season. “Matt’s worth every cent of it,” says Mitchell. “There’s so much growth in him and he’s so valuable to Australian rugby. He carries his responsibilities really well and he projects such a good persona. He builds confidence. He doesn’t have a lot of anxiety.”

    AFL in WA must wish it could say the same. Rugby’s modest invasion is but a mosquito bite for now, but it is a timely incursion at a moment when the dominant code is ridden with angst and deep introspection. Where Giteau is stable and yes, cloyingly squeaky clean at times, another famous footballing son of a famous footballing father is projecting entirely the wrong persona for his game.

    Ben Cousins’ well-chronicled drug dependency would be bad enough in isolation, but coupled with wider revelations of a culture of arrogance and substance abuse at the West Coast Eagles, it’s understandable the search for local role models is being broadened. Rugby has not deliberately exploited this opening, but there is no doubt Giteau’s innate sense of balance is good news for his club in the wider Perth community.

    Not that he takes any particular credit for staying level-headed. If he should ever inhale too deeply of his celebrity status, he knows how quickly his family would squeeze all the air out of his lungs. “My family keeps me grounded,” Giteau says cryptically, inviting an inspection.

    CERTAINLY THE GITEAU HOUSEHOLD in Jerrabomberra, just outside Canberra, is no place for the faint-hearted. “No one gets a big head around here,” says his mother, Julie. “There is always plenty of verballing going on.” Sledging, more like it. Ricky Ponting would do well to bring the Australian cricket team here for a refresher course before they next play South Africa. Yet, difficult as it might be for an outsider to accept, the often brutal verbal back-and-forth over the kitchen table is the Giteaus’ way of expressing love and affection.

    Even when Julie recounts the story of how she came to fall in love with her future husband there’s a sting in the tail. They met, she recalls, in Sydney’s Prospect, where an eager young Ron spun her the line he played President’s Cup rugby league for Wests. The daughter of a mad Wests supporter, Julie was impressed but sceptical, too – and on going home, she immediately thumbed through her father’s match programs, searching for her would-be suitor’s name.

    Eventually she found it. Not in the President’s Cup team, the old third grade in pre-NRL days, but down in the Under-18 Jersey Flegg side. Not for the first time – nor surely the last – Ron Giteau had been caught out talking himself up. Yet despite, or more likely because of his bravado, a love flourished – and from it a robust 29-year marriage, four children and a close, loud, bantering family.

    No one is special. Or rather, everyone is. The Giteau family might have travelled the world to watch Matt play Test rugby but when his older brother Justin goes around in a Canberra second grade match on a Saturday afternoon, the whole clan gathers to cheer him on, Matt included, sprawled out on the sideline.

    Dares are daily and sometimes the consequences can be painful. When Matt’s older sister Kristy chanced upon a newspaper story about the Canberra Marathon the following day, she innocently remarked she’d like to run a marathon one day. “Yeah, sure,” Giteau scoffed. Challenge accepted. The next day Kristy went out and ran it.

    Matt, third in line but lording it over younger brother Ben, particularly on the table-tennis table, has inherited his mother’s shortish frame but also, like his sister, her staying power. Even now, Julie begins each day with a brisk 10km run before heading off to work as a teacher at Queanbeyan South, Matt’s old primary school, where Kristy also teaches. But, she says with a theatrical sigh, it was from his father that her second son inherited his personality.

    That’s always tricky, when father and son are so alike, especially when Dad is ultra-competitive and demanding. They could have butted heads. In fact, they did and still do, but in the teasing, playful manner of best mates, not bitter rivals. Ask Matt who has helped him most and the answer comes back as hard and flat as his pass from the scrumbase: “Dad.”

    Giteau makes no secret of the fact he idolises his father, a waste oil collection driver whose truck, parked opposite the two-storey house, dominates the street. Almost from the time he could walk – and he uncharacteristically took his time in that department, a full 17 months – he and his father have been inseparable. It was his father who negotiated Giteau’s first football contract. Even factoring in inflation, it wasn’t a patch on the one he signed with the Force. Here was the deal: if Matt acted as ball-boy for all three grades at Queanbeyan, where Ron was coaching, he’d get a pie and a can of soft drink afterwards. Wander off distractedly and he’d forfeit his pay. Fat chance. “It was something I just loved doing,” Giteau recalls. “They’re my earliest recollections, going to the footy with Dad. I was always hanging around, soaking up the whole atmosphere.”

    It was his father who taught him not just the basics of the game but also its intricacies: “When you’re smaller, you have to be smarter” may have been the first thing Giteau learnt on his father’s knee. Ron, a none-too-big but utterly professional centre who was unlucky never to have played representative football, was talking about outwitting the opposition, but young Matt apparently interpreted it as permission to develop a smart mouth.

    It is something he has spent a lifetime refining, at some personal cost during his schoolboy years. Whenever the “rugby union versus league” debate arises at home – pretty much a daily fixture whenever Matt is visiting from the West – and Ron, larrikin hero of the working class that he is, gets in some good shots about only softies playing rugby, the comeback from his private school-educated son is playfully ferocious. “How many Tests have you played, old man?”

    Nothing interrupts their banter, not even the arrival of two journalists from French newspaper L’Equipe, who have come to do a story on the family to coincide with the Rugby World Cup in France in September-October. Their English is only passable and soon they are floundering as Ron recounts one hilarious tale after another in his broad Australian idiom. Giteau, walking past, can’t resist. “Dad, your stories don’t make any sense even when people can understand you … what chance have these guys got?”

    Bianca is right. She does have a cheeky boyfriend. It’s the first thing, too, that Wallabies coach John Connolly and Force chief executive Peter O’Meara hit upon when asked separately to describe Giteau: the mischief in him, his sense of fun. But cheekiness without ability and self-discipline is mere bluff and bluster; and Giteau, from a very young age, has always been the real deal.

    The First XV coach at St Edmund’s College in Canberra, John Papahatzis, was the first to identify Giteau as a Wallaby in the making. It wasn’t just the youngster’s tactical aplomb that impressed Papahatzis, but his steely determination to walk his own path. By the time Giteau reached the First XV in 2000, Papahatzis was convinced he could maximise his impact by using him not in his customary position of half-back but instead as the playmaker at five-eighth. But Giteau dug in. St Edmund’s greats Ricky Stuart, George Gregan and Matt Henjak had all been half-backs, and Giteau was determined to follow in their footsteps.

    So he allowed Giteau to remain at half-back in the Firsts, and instead of tailoring the boy to his tactics, he tailored his tactics to the boy. It worked; St Edmund’s dominated not just the Canberra competition but the NSW-wide Waratah Shield as well.

    Giteau might have missed out on Australian Schoolboys selection but over the next two years, while at the University of Canberra doing Phys Ed, the rugby honours came faster than he could comprehend. First, inclusion in the Brumbies Academy, then the Canberra Vikings side, then the Australian sevens team before, astonishingly, he was chosen for the 2002 Wallabies spring tour. “It was never even a dream of mine,” says Giteau. “It all happened before I had the chance to dream it.”

    News of his selection was broken to him deep into the Vikings’ end-of-season celebrations, and by the time Jones rang to congratulate him, Giteau’s voice was as scratchy as an old gramophone record. Panicking, Giteau handed the phone to a mate, but the former Australian coach has never been a person to trifle with and presently the newest, happiest but most inebriated young Wallaby found himself on the receiving end of a celebrated Jones blast. “Straighten yourself up and get down here to Sydney,” barked the man who had just plucked him from obscurity. Unwisely, Jones did not specify what “straighten up” meant, and so it was that Giteau was greeted with a second blast when he presented himself to the Wallabies coach the next day – with a leopard print in his hair.

    It’s the one thing in which Giteau deviates from the straight and narrow, his hair. Over the years he has experimented with leopard spots, a punk mohawk, skunk lines, even zebra stripes in his eyebrows – all of which sent Jones into apoplexy. On one occasion, while out injured, he had the Chinese symbol for “healing” imprinted on his locks. Another time he dyed his hair red, only to panic when it faded to pink. “He’s learnt what works and doesn’t work – like every girl,” teases big sister Kristy, in what just might be a piece of marathon revenge. “He’s more metro than me.”

    Perhaps not for much longer. Connolly and his fellow Australian selectors might be revisiting Papahatzis’ problem, not quite sure where best to utilise Giteau – half-back, five-eighth or inside centre – but they do know they want him somewhere in the Test side. Automatic Wallaby selections are none too common these days, and that puts Giteau on a very short list of candidates to captain Australia at the World Cup. That may require the sacrifice of a little tonsorial orthodoxy from him, but surely not on the Gregan scale. After all, it’s all about balance.

    IT IS NOVEMBER 2004 AND GITEAU and the Wallabies have returned to Twickenham. But it is England now who are world champions. The beardless boy of two years earlier has grown up somewhat. How could he not, having played in an extra-time World Cup final while only 21? There is a calm assurance now about his play, an authority. In the early exchanges he cuts England to shreds, throwing the final pass for Australia’s first two tries. The world champions hit back to take the lead but Giteau, memorably, kicks a critical late penalty goal to earn Australia a thrilling 21-19 victory.

    But it is another moment entirely that has his team-mates shaking their heads in wonder afterwards. Forced to kick under desperate pressure, Giteau slips on the treacherous surface and bumbles the ball into a wall of white jerseys. Catlike, he leaps back to his feet and as the England forwards descend, swoops directly across their path; in one breathless motion, he scoops up the ball in his left hand without breaking stride and audaciously counter-attacks. “What a pick-up from Giteau!” screams the commentator. “He is turning on quite a stylish display, Matt Giteau.”

    And the World Cup is yet to come.

    * * *

    HOW GITEAU PUNCHES ABOVE HIS WEIGHT

    On the face of it, there is no obvious reason why Matt Giteau is anything out of the ordinary as a rugby player. As an inside centre, where he has played the bulk of his 41 Tests, he is tiny by international standards. Even by the scaled-down standards of half-backs, he is not overly big at 178cm and 85kg. And the next generation of number nines is getting bigger, with new Wallabies squad member Josh Holmes arriving on the Test scene at 186cm and 95kg. If physique alone had shaped his career, Giteau would never have progressed beyond the Canberra Vikings.

    It’s what Giteau packs into that solidly compact frame that makes him, in the opinion of All Blacks backs coach Wayne Smith, “one of the most dangerous players in the world to try to contain at the moment”. Certainly there are few players who can match his evasive skills. Where some footballers are concerned, that’s a catty euphemism for “he runs on fear”. But not in the case of Giteau, who plays with courage and daring, despite his size.

    All too often, opponents underestimate his strength. In the Western Force’s recent Super 14 match against the Chiefs, Giteau was hemmed in against the touchline by All Blacks Sione Lauaki and Byron Kelleher, two of the most physically aggressive players in world rugby, and it seemed inevitable he would be bundled unceremoniously into touch. But, muscling up, Giteau unexpectedly launched himself infield and smashed straight through the two startled defenders to score an astonishing try.

    Mostly, however, he mesmerises the opposition, taunting and teasing with his dazzling footwork and balanced running. As Force coach John Mitchell puts it: “He’s a threat both on and off the ball … he stretches the defence all the time, whether he’s got the ball or is just lurking.’’

    Defensively, too, he hits way beyond his weight division. Usually he tackles with ruthless efficiency, going for the ankles and scything even the scariest runners straight to ground. At other times, however, he will set out to make a statement; and if Mitchell has a criticism of Giteau’s defence, it is with what he calls his tackle accuracy. “He gets a bit excited at times. He likes nailing people.’’

    The X-Factor, however, the thing that elevates Giteau to greatness, is his mental strength. “He hates to lose,’’ says Wallabies coach John Connolly, no doubt thinking back to Dublin last November, when Giteau sat brooding on the Wallabies’ heavy loss to Ireland long after his team-mates had shrugged off the setback. “And I’m very comfortable with that mindset. It’s contagious.’’

    The Australian

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    Veteran Jess's Avatar
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    Absolutely wonderful to read!

    Thank you so very much for posting that Evie! Read and loved every word.

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    I made Happy sad...

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    Champion Skiza's Avatar
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    Thanks for that Evie, what a cool article!!

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    Veteran Contributor frontrow's Avatar
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    Probably the best article i have read on this forum, absolutely first class...

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    Proudly bought to you by a brewery somewhere....

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    Senior Player Contributor Evie's Avatar
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    I stumbled across it at 3am last night while I couldn't sleep and just had to post it, it is just a great profile of him and his family.

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    Adore this life
    There is no guarantee
    Could end by tomorrow

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    Good find, Evie!

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    Champion Contributor Em-Forcer's Avatar
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    Nice find, Evie! I like to see a guy that can take a slagging from his sister about his hair!!!

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    Keeping the Faith ... right here in Perth!

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    Hey, Em......

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    Quote Originally Posted by JediKnight
    Hey, Em......

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