Steve Mascord, Sport & Style | August 18, 2009

Matt Giteau was raised on rugby league, but he is now the Wallabies' most important player as Australia attempts to reclaim the Bledisloe Cup, writes Steve Mascord

In the pantheon of achievements that set Matt Giteau apart, there is one that stands out. It's a stark fact that separates him from every other football player in the world where both codes of rugby are played. Wait for it.

The Wallaby five-eighth - who stands as the 15-man game's golden child right now - was once considered too much of a "ratbag" for rugby league.

We'll let you digest that for a second. Think of all those nasty headlines this year: the sexual misadventures, the racial abuse, the late-night girl punchin', door knockin' and drink drivin'. Imagine how high the bar has been set for misbehaviour in rugby league. And then try to imagine a very, very naughty 10-year-old.

"Had I not been a ratbag, I probably wouldn't have got in so much trouble," Giteau tells Sport&Style on another day in Wallaby camp, in the foyer of another hotel.

"I played rugby league, went to a public school. I was only young. I think I was only 10 or 11 ... just your normal misbehaving, nothing too bad, just getting in trouble at school. It was nothing ever criminal, just [that] my parents saw the reason to send me to a private school and get better behaved."

Giteau laughs uneasily when I suggest that, on recent evidence (sorry, David Gallop), being a ratbag should guarantee you a solid future as a mungo. "Yeah ...

"I think my parents saw me heading somewhere they didn't want me to. I was just hanging with the wrong crowd."

One can only picture the snotty-nosed sixth class "wrong crowd" in Canberra, circa 1993, the little devils who drove the son of former Canberra Raiders rugby league star Ron Giteau to St Edmund's College's grounds at Griffith, away from his father's game and into the heaving bosom of rugby union. At the college (winners of union's schoolboy Waratah Shield more often than any other team), Matt Giteau was initially a heathen in more ways than one.

"I hated union," he says, spitting rather than saying the word "hated". "I didn't like it at all, played it on Saturday and league on a Sunday. I did what I had to do on a Saturday, then enjoyed my sport on a Sunday.

"The rules were that if you played league, you had to play union. I think it was to get all the leaguies playing for the school." Indeed, St Edmund's often sponsors under-privileged children to attend (Giteau was not one of them). These chosen ones are scooped up, encouraged to be devout Catholics and discouraged from devotion to rugby league. Yet Luke Priddis, David Furner and Ricky Stuart managed to go to St Edmund's and have long, productive lives playing the ball and scoring four-point tries.

For a while, Matt Giteau remained part of the same insurgency. "They really build up the First XV and make that team the be-all and end-all," Giteau says, in language just that tiny bit more clipped, more carefully phrased, than that of your average NRL player.

"By the time you hit year 11 and year 12 ... they told me if I wanted to play First XV, I had to give up league - so I did." Fair? "Not really, but if you wanted to play in that top team, that's what they were saying. But league at that time was getting a bit stale for me and I was starting to enjoy my union.

I saw no reason why I shouldn't give it up."

Giteau is wearing a Wallabies polo shirt. His fair hair is cut in an über-spiky style and his physique is somewhat slighter than you would expect from an NRL or AFL practitioner of similarly stratospheric standing. A couple of months before, I was present during a Melbourne Storm training session at Princes Park when Carlton, with whom the outpost league club shares facilities, ran onto the oval for a training session.

"There he is," Melbourne Storm trainer Alex Corvo said, pointing towards the Carlton players. "The highest-paid footballer in Australia: Chris Judd." But Storm staffer Dave Donaghy quickly corrected him. "No, that would be Matt Giteau."

During his time at his former Super 14 team, the Perth-based Western Force, Giteau, with controversial sponsor Firepower acting as a third-party backer, was reported to be paid $1.5 million a year. St Edmund's' expressed mission is to give its students "a mature commitment to Jesus Christ", but if the statement was "so much money that your friends will comment, 'Jesus Christ!' ", it would be no less appropriate in the case of Matt Giteau. He does not argue against the proposition that he has recently been, or still is, the most lavishly rewarded footballer who is Australian and still lives here. "You don't think about it," he says. "There'll be a few [comments] every now and then - one of the boys will just say, 'Your shout.'

"When you're playing your sport or doing whatever you do, money's irrelevant. Well, not irrelevant - obviously you do need money - but whether you're highest or lowest [paid], it doesn't matter. What we're told time and time again is, 'Before you know it, it's [your career] over.' "

But money is a big part of how this 178-centimetre, 85-kilogram dynamo is perceived - whether he likes it or not. It's not so much what he banks each week but the collapse of fuel-additive company Firepower and the reported $1 million plus he is still owed by it that people talk about.

Last year, Giteau denied he had threatened to walk out on Western Force if the money was not paid. A group of local businessmen had formed a consortium to cover the shortfall. And he served out that contract, before announcing that he would be returning to Canberra and the ACT Brumbies in 2010. The Force also denied reports that the consortium wanted him to extend his stay in Perth in exchange for what he was owed. It's a touchy subject.

"All I know is that myself, along with a number of other people, are still owed a lot of money from Firepower," he answers, when asked about specifics of reports and denials at the time of the firm's collapse.

"I've moved on from that. That's in the past. That's history. It was a big learning experience for me, but ..." But surely it was a major reason for you returning to Canberra, Matt?

"It was certainly a factor, yeah. Mate, I don't understand exactly how the business operates. It's not my business to know. All I do, I go out and play football and however the club can make money, it makes money."

Giteau says he was never tempted away from Canberra by third-party deals. In any case, he's back. And his return to the ACT Brumbies has sparked a debate in rugby union: should one Australian province be allowed to get so much stronger than the others? Shouldn't Australian Rugby Union, like other sports' governing bodies, be en-couraging as level a playing field as possible, for the sake of its TV contracts and sponsors? "This year there was not one Australian side in the [Super 14] finals and that's not great for Australian rugby," Giteau answers. "Whatever teams or whatever provinces can recruit the best or are able to attract the better players, players are happy to go there, that's fine ... it's fine the way it is. There are certain players who are able to get third-party assistance and there are other players who are happy just for an opportunity.

"In the best interests of Australian rugby, you need teams that are in the finals." Okay, what else is he going to say?

For now, Matt Giteau has a series of late-winter and spring internationals to concentrate on. He admits he made his Wallaby debut too early - against England at Twickenham in 2002 - without one minute of super rugby under his belt. Yet today he is considered one of Test rugby's most dangerous, daring and durable players.

The return to Canberra, however, is in the back of his mind. And it will not be without its challenges. Back in Perth, he was given plenty of space, as he recalls with relish: "You just cruise around and you're able to go to beaches, go to the shops, go to the pub, have a beer, have a bet and relax.

"Canberra's obviously a pretty small community," he continues. "Knowing a lot of people there, you do get noticed a lot more. But that's not something that daunts me or I'm worried about." However, Giteau's fiancée, Bianca Franklin - sister of AFL star Lance - is yet to announce if she is going to forgo her netball career with Perth-based West Coast Fever to join Matt full-time in the nation's capital.

As for the size of Giteau's contract, his father, Ron, has openly described his son as "overpaid". When Ron changed rugby league clubs himself for more money, first from Western Suburbs to Eastern Suburbs, then from Easts to Canberra, the offers had two or three fewer zeros than Matt's. But rugby union would probably not have one of its most exciting stars had Ron not joined the struggling Raiders in 1983.

"I would have played league here [in Sydney] and probably just be playing local league with my mates," says Matt with a shake of the head, when asked for an alternative-universe scenario in which his parents stayed in Sin City. "There's plenty of areas where, if things changed throughout your life, you could be heading in a different direction - but I'm glad things panned out the way they did."

Meanwhile, the war between the rugby codes continues to rage in the Giteaus' Canberra lounge room. "Dad wouldn't like me saying this but if there was a rugby union game on television and a game of league, he'd secretly watch the rugby. If I was there, he'd throw the league on, though - just to prove a point. We still talk about that stuff at home. If a bad pass is thrown in rugby, he'll say, 'Look at this, these boys can't pass in rugby.' Drop balls in league and I say, 'These league boys can't catch.' "

And if the son of a waste-oil-collection driver is awarded the Wallabies captaincy in the future, Ron will be there in the front row at the presentation dressed appropriately, says Matt, laughing. "If I tell him there's a rugby function on, he says, 'Oh, should I bring the leather patches?' "