Matt Gillett shouldn’t be sitting here. The lock may have finally secured two feet firmly on the ground at Castlemaine Street but for his entire journey to Brisbane Broncos heartland, Gillett has been swimming against the tide.
Now a strong contender for a spot in the green and gold to be named on Sunday, Gillett isn’t even a natural forward. It would also be his first representative jersey, having gone through a difficult junior career where he was regularly overlooked for higher honours. He’s a Dragons supporter at heart and for a large part of his early childhood he didn’t even have a home.
As the din of a raucous home crowd dies down after an emphatic Broncos victory – over Gillett’s former heroes, no less – there’s only one facet of his identity that he’s sure of. With the rest of Gillett’s team-mates on the bus waiting to depart Suncorp Stadium, he’s asked one final question: “Are you a New South Welshman or a …
“A Queenslander,” interjects Gillett, sternly, for the first time all night.
Gillett hails from Macksville, that rich sporting inlet in northern New South Wales that also cultivated Greg Inglis and cricketer Phil Hughes. But Gillett wasn’t long acquainted with the Nambucca River that flows through the town before he was to make the first step in his upstream journey to maroon and gold – bidding goodbye to the comfort of his brick and mortar home.
“I was quite young,” remembers Gillett. “Mum and Dad had a campervan and a four-wheel drive and we just went around Australia for two years.
“I can’t remember much of it. I was so young but I’ll probably do it again when I’m older.”
It’s a good thing the Gilletts enjoy driving; years later they would be making daily 45-minute trips just to keep Matt’s dreams alive.
“When I first went to Redcliffe from Bribie [Island], Dad or Mum would have to drive me because I didn’t have my licence at the time,” says Gillett. “They were working full-time jobs during the day and then had to take me to training four or five times a week. I can’t thank them enough for what they’ve done for me and they’ve stuck beside me the whole time.”
New South Wales was only home to Matt Gillett for two years – his adopted locale of Bribie Island north of Brisbane laying claim to his formative years. Eventually he impressed enough people to forge his way into the Norths Devils Queensland Cup side where he was noticed by the man that mattered – then Broncos coach Ivan Henjak.
“[Henjak] offered me a pre-season at the Broncos and I was over the moon about that. I never thought I’d get the chance for that and it all just fired up from there,” says Gillett.
“I never ever thought I’d be playing NRL footy, that’s for sure. As a kid, coming from Bribie you don’t really think of that sort of thing. I didn’t make many rep teams as a young kid so you always think you’re out of the picture a bit and one day it just happened. It was unreal.”
Against all the odds, Gillett was now a Bronco, but at heart he was also a back.
“I was tiny at school. I was pretty skinny and I played all my footy at five-eighth or centre,” the 23-year-old reveals.
Gillett played a handful of NRL games out wide, but it’s in the Broncos forward pack that he’s likely earned a busy 2012 rep schedule.
“I really do love it in there, in the forwards,” he says. “You’ve got to love the physical contact to play footy.”
Less than an hour earlier and from the wing position, Gillett had scored a match-winning try for his side against the Dragons in front of nearly 40,000 fans at Suncorp Stadium. It’s something he always dreamed of doing, but rather for the visitors.
“I did come and watch a few games here in the red and white but obviously it’s not that way now,” he admits. “It sounds like [the crowd] is 50/50 when you’re playing St George [in Brisbane]. They do have a lot of fans up here and it makes it even better when you get a win like that.”
The term ‘journeyman’ has become cliché in the rugby league world, but in Gillett there is a true example of somebody who has undergone countless literal and figurative upheavals to find his way to the NRL. And with Test and Origin sides to be announced in the coming weeks, one gets the sense that his journey has quite a few twists and turns still to navigate.