In the wake of Matt Giteau’s return to play in the John I Dent Cup for the Gungahlin Eagles, we take a look at the great comebacks to grassroots sport in Canberra.
When Michael Matthews returned to Canberra in October 2017 for a short break three months after winning the green sprinter’s jersey at the Tour de France, he went on a bunch ride rather than enjoy a Civic reception.
By the time word got around, more than 150 people joined the 30-kilometre ride around the city with the Vikings Cycling Club. Matthews was the star attraction wearing his coveted green jersey, riding with the club he had joined as a young rider in 2006.
For many in that group, it was the thrill of a lifetime.
As it was for the ACT Comets team in the Futures Cricket League in 2015 when retired test vice captain Brad Haddin returned to play a warm-up game before the Big Bash.
Haddin, who last played for a Canberra team in the 1998/1999 season before going on to play 66 tests in a stellar international career, was big news in his comeback to ACT sport and he didn’t disappoint.
In his return in a one-off game 16 years after he had last played for Canberra, he hit 104 off 100 balls.
Kevin ‘Cowboy’ Neale came to Canberra in 1978 after a coveted career in the AFL. A premiership player with St Kilda in 1966, he captain-coached Ainslie to premierships in 1979 and 1980, setting a goal-scoring record in 1980.
He also led the ACT to that memorable victory over the big V in the same year.
There have been other notable returns to Canberra sport, including world and Olympic champion Kim Brennan, and Bruce Hick and Adair Ferguson, all competing in the ACT rowing regattas. And one of Australia’s most decorated softballers – two-time Olympic bronze medallist Sally McCreedy – returned to play for her local team, the Boomerangs.
Former Raiders, NSW and Australian rugby league player Terry Campese returned to captain coach the Queanbeyan Blues. And he’s still going.
A couple of weeks ago, veteran test prop Ben Alexander made a comeback in the Uni Norths Owls fourth grade side.
Australian hockey players have also returned to play in the local hockey competition. This includes prominent greats, Glenn Turner and Anna Flanagan.
Numerous Capitals, Cannons and Australian basketball players in the ACT League, have made a return to local courts, with many still playing.
Australian 100 metres record-holder Melissa Breen, and national 400 metres hurdles champion Lauren Boden, have competed at local club nights along with world champion javelin thrower Kelsey Lee Barber.
It’s the same in the Capital Football Premier League, with soccer players such as the Sykes sisters returning to Canberra to play locally.
On Saturday, at Portsea Oval, Duntroon, Matt Giteau – a Wallaby with 103 tests under his belt – ran onto the field for the first time in a local competition since 2006.
Playing off the bench for the Gungahlin Eagles, he wanted it to be low key but there was an air of expectation as he warmed up on the sideline.
Royals won on Saturday by nine, but for Giteau it was a chance to train and play in a team environment after training on his own for three months in preparation for a playing stint in the US.
It’s akin to having Nick Kyrgios playing in the ACT tennis championships in a few years time, or Patty Mills playing in the local basketball competition post-NBA, or Ned Zelic in his prime, in the Capital Football Premier League.
There is a certain level of distinctive excitement generated when a celebrated athlete returns to the grassroots.
‘Lord’ Ted Goodwin might have been in his 40s when he played in rugby league’s group 11, but the crowds were massive whenever he played.
As Matt Giteau reflected after his return to ACT Rugby Union on the weekend, it’s a chance to connect with the community and play in a team. And these are the elements of sport at its best.