Smooth operator

GARETH DUNCAN talks to Matt Giteau about the Tri-Nations and Jake White’s appointment as Brumbies coach.

You’re set to become the 11th Wallaby to play 100 Tests. How satisfying will that be for you?
I’ve really enjoyed my career in Australia and with the Wallabies. Experiencing one Test would be enough for most players, so playing 10 seasons at this level is a special achievement and one I’m very proud of. My favourite moments are making my Test debut back in 2002, playing in the 2003 World Cup final and beating the Boks in Bloemfontein for the first time in 47 years.

Your father was a rugby league specialist. How did you get into union?
It was because of my bad behaviour as a kid! When I was at school I had to transfer to a private college in Canberra because of it, and they didn’t play league there. They only played union and I hated it. But that was the only footy I could play, so it grew on me. I got used to the culture and style of play, so I eventually started enjoying it.

You started your career at scrumhalf. Why did you switch to flyhalf and inside centre?
I was picked at scrumhalf when I was younger because of my small stature. But when I made the Brumbies team, the flyhalf picked up an injury, and I filled the gap. I did well and it was decided that I would have an extended run there. [Then Wallabies coach] Eddie Jones was impressed with me at flyhalf, so that’s where he picked me to play for the Wallabies. I’ve experimented at scrumhalf at international level a few times, but have played mostly at flyhalf or inside centre.

What is your preferred position?
Flyhalf or inside centre; it doesn’t matter as long as I’m in the team. At flyhalf, I enjoy controlling the game and getting my hands on the ball more. At 12, I get more room and space to run and stab a few attacks at the opposition. It’s not really a hassle rotating between the two positions. There are different tactics before each game, so I prepare for the job the team needs me to do.

Who have you connected well with on your outside?
At the Brumbies, Christian Lealiifano is a talented guy and I’ve built a good relationship with scrumhalf Josh Valentine. Berrick Barnes and I formed a good combination at Test level for a few seasons and Quade Cooper and I have done well together more recently. But my all-time favourite combination is the one I had with Stephen Larkham and Stirling Mortlock. We played five seasons together at the Brumbies and Wallabies, which allowed us to settle and become familiar with each other’s games. Stephen was brilliant at flyhalf as he created so much space for the midfield.

Does size matter?
I was one of the first small players to emerge at senior level, and it was seen as an abnormal thing back then. But what I lacked in size, I always made up for with my speed, agility and fitness. I found a way for size not to matter. It’s good to see more and more smaller players emerging today and proving they can play well at the highest level.

Why have the Brumbies struggled in Super Rugby since last making the play-offs in 2004?
I wouldn’t say we have struggled over the years. Some results just didn’t go our way and we made some poor decisions that cost us. I don’t have insight as to what happened when I spent three seasons at the Force, but from what I’ve seen this year, we lack experience. There’s some great talent here, they just need time.

Will the appointment of Jake White as coach improve things?
He has the credentials having won a World Cup, so I’m sure he can take the team forward. Jake will also add freshness to the team and lead them in a new direction with his ideas. The Brumbies will lose a few senior players, so he’ll need to sign some decent experienced replacements to add depth in certain positions.

Is there too much rugby being played?
Because it’s a World Cup year, there won’t be too many complaints. The players will want to get in as much rugby as possible heading into the tournament. But looking towards next season, I do think there’s too much rugby scheduled. Super Rugby has been extended and the Tri-Nations will be extended, and there will also be inbound and outbound tours. That’s too much rugby and players will burn out.

With the World Cup later this year, will the Tri-Nations be taken seriously?
No doubt. The rivalry between the Wallabies, All Blacks and Springboks is strong. No one wants to lose. Some guys who are struggling with injuries will be rested but I don’t think teams will wrap their best players in cotton wool. It will be the last top-level preparation for the World Cup, so the coaches will need to field their best teams.

There’s a perception that the Wallabies have a world-class run-on side, but they lack depth. Do you agree?
Australian rugby has always struggled with depth because of the many sporting codes in the country. But there has been so much talent coming through the system in the past two seasons, especially in Super Rugby, so I’m sure the Wallabies will have a strong 30-man World Cup squad.

What impact has Robbie Deans had on the team?
He’s been influential in creating depth and bringing the young players through. He’s also managed them properly by giving them the confidence and the advice they need. That’s helped them cope and perform well at Test level.

Is Drew Mitchell’s injury a big blow?
It was initially, but word is that he will be fully fit by September. Drew’s a freakish player as he doesn’t need a lot of time to get back into top form. He scored two tries in his first Super Rugby game against the Rebels and was outstanding. So missing out on the Tri-Nations won’t be a major thing.

Who are the World Cup favourites?
The All Blacks, no doubt. They’re tough to beat at home and have been No 1 in the world for a while. They were in excellent form last season and I’m sure they will carry it into this one.

Sonny Bill Williams will be your potential opposite number. How do you stop him?
He’s had a great start to his rugby union career and his league experience and skills have helped him excel. Some players have struggled to stop him and his offload has added an extra dimension on attack. It will take a collective effort to stop that threat and shut him down. If your team-mates surround the tackler and anticipate the offload, it could provide your side with a counter-attacking opportunity.

How do you foresee the Wallabies faring in future?
I think they will become stronger as a team. They’ve extended the contracts of many younger and older players, and the more they play with each other, the better. They’ll have one of the strongest rosters in world rugby.

Why have you decided to join Toulon in 2012?
I’m going to miss playing for the Wallabies, but I need a fresh challenge. I’ve been playing my footy in Australia for a long time, and I believe the switch to Toulon will be good for me. It’ll be like featuring for the Barbarians as I’ll get the opportunity to play with other internationals like Bakkies Botha and Jonny Wilkinson. I’m also going there to experience the French culture. I’m taking French lessons to help me settle in easily.

Will you be back to face the British & Irish Lions in 2013?
I’ve signed an 18-month deal with Toulon and I’ll take that time to decide whether I’m still good enough and enjoying my rugby. If I am, I’ll return and make myself available for the Wallabies. I need that desire to play.

– This article first appeared in the July issue of SA Rugby magazine. The August issue will be on sale from Wednesday, 27 July.