What sort of team can afford to leave out a 92-times capped 28-year old who has twice been nominated for IRB International Player of the Year [the most recent of these nominations coming a mere 20 months ago in December 2009], who has scored 624 international points, including a not to be sniffed at 29 tries – of halfbacks, only Joost van der Westhuizen  and Dan Carter [equal, on 29] can match or exceed him – and who has started international games at scrum-half, out-half and first centre? You’ve guessed it: Australia. They’re that good, apparently.
Or you could look at it in a different light and see the omission of Matt Giteau, who won the John Eales Medal as the outstanding Australian rugby player of 2009, as the failure of a coach to get the best from one of the most talented players of his generation.
Pat McCabe, Anthony Fa’ainga, Rob Horne, Berrick Barnes: in the mind of Robbie Deans, better bets for Australia than Matt Giteau in the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Barnes, who has played four games of amateur club rugby for Sydney University since declaring himself unavailable due to recurring concussions suffered in the Super 15; Rob Horne, an injury-prone 22 year old who has failed to score a point in his six test starts and hasn’t played a minute of international rugby since July 2010, thirteen months ago; Anthony Faingaa, the 24 year old Queensland Red who has made just one ‘run-on’ start for the Wallabies, and Pat McCabe, the 23 year old sometime Brumbies fullback with four Wallabies caps to his name, all of them in the 12 jersey?
Any one of these four players could have been omitted to include Giteau. You can make the argument that Horne is a 13, which runs outside Giteau’s positional remit, but Horne is still a player who hasn’t yet impressed in Wallaby colours and has struggled with injury all the way through his short career. The rest of them? Faingaa had a reasonably good season for the champion Reds [albeit in quite a limited role], but Barnes’ Super Rugby campaign was a shambles. McCabe made nine starts at fullback for Giteau’s Brumbies this year, and just two in the 12 jersey.
It’s a startling fall from grace for Giteau, a player who – on paper – has everything a coach could want: positional versatility, big-game experience, a huge collection of caps, goal-kicking [albeit maybe not at the 75%+ you would want from a first-rate international kicker], more than a passing acquaintance with captaincy and leadership, distribution, invention, a clean bill of health and who, at 28, should be in his prime.
If it’s a fall from grace for Giteau, it’s a huge call from Deans. He has picked four players who, in combination, have made less than half as many starts for the Wallabies as Giteau has made in his career. Experience is a major factor in world cups; talent alone doesn’t win them. Even if you’re picking on talent alone, can the likes of McCabe, Faingaa and Horne honestly be considered to have shown anything like what Giteau has shown over almost a decade of international rugby?
While Giteau’s form this season hasn’t hit the heights that it did in 2009, it seems an incredible decision to leave out somebody who is so obviously talented, so versatile and so experienced. Deans’ calling time on Rocky Elsom’s captaincy was a brave and decisive move; could it be that calling time on Giteau’s international career will come back to haunt him in a month’s time?