There was always a chance a former South Sydney Rabbitoh would return to Australia one day wearing the red rose of the England rugby union team. Not many would have expected that former Rabbitoh to be Ben Te’o.
When Sam Burgess departed Redfern in 2014 amidst much fanfare, I expected the former Bradford Bull and England star to go on to have a long career in union.
Alas, the Burgess experiment was doomed from the start. Pushed and pulled from the back row to the centres by a Bath and England management incapable of seeing the bigger picture, Burgess departed ignominiously after England’s World Cup disaster, returning to Sydney and the NRL after earning five caps.
Meanwhile, the Aukland-born Ben Te’o quietly went about his business for Leinster in the Pro12.
There was little ceremony about Te’o’s arrival in the Emerald Isle, and when the former Queensland Origin star broke his arm during his first start, the dim spotlight swiftly moved across the Irish Sea to his former NRL teammate’s tribulations.
As such, he was able to quietly go about his business in learning the code, something he credits with his current success.
“I got a lot more experience, learning all the steps. I’d have to say 80 per cent of all things I’ve learnt in rugby union has come from my team mates giving me tips,” Te’o said.
In his own words, Te’o did not find it easy, telling the Irish Examiner, “There was a lot of really hard times in terms of the skill set and training and early days when sometimes I thought had I spent too far away, too long away from the game … I had to fall back in love with rugby, to be honest, to really make sure I excelled.”
And excel he has.
Playing centre, the same position as another other famous code-hopping Kiwi, Sonny Bill Williams, has thrived in for the All Blacks and the spot that Burgess coveted most for England’s World Cup bid, Te’o has performed exceptionally in Ireland.
Te’o won the Leinster’s Player of the Year Award this year, during a season in which Leinster have soared to top of the Pro12 ladder and made the grand final, to be played against Irish rivals Connacht at Murrayfield this weekend.
Due to England’s strict ruling of no foreign-based players being eligible for selection, the grand final will be Te’o’s final game for the province. He has tackled the final hurdle to his England section, earning a contract with Worcester for next season.
As such, the way has been cleared for Eddie Jones to name him in his England Touring squad for the three-match Australian series starting in June.
Jones is a fan, telling Fox Sports last month, “The boy can play. He was an absolutely outstanding rugby league player.”
Having been named in the squad, if Te’o does start in Australia, it will thankfully be based on merit.
And this is the most pleasing aspect of this story for fans of the game. In an era where code hopping is booming, Te’o’s is a great story of perseverance over hyperbole, of performance over reputation.
However, there is another side to this story.
Te’o was one year away from becoming eligible to play for Ireland through residency, and when asked by the Irish Examiner whether it was a tough choice to declare for England the former league star said, “I just thought a year is a long time. You don’t know what’s around the corner in terms of what the Irish coaches are thinking. They might go the other way. I just think when you see an opportunity and it feels right just take it and go with it.”
He’s right in thinking a year is a long time in sport. But surely international sport should be more than a good opportunity.
Admittedly, we live in an increasingly small world.
Te’o, born in New Zealand and a Junior Kiwis representative in 2005, played for Samoa in the 2008 Rugby League World Cup. He then declared for Australia so as to play State of Origin for Queensland, before now accepting England, the land of his mother’s birth, as his home in Union.
That’s his fourth nationality as a player.
For perspective, Worcester will be just his fifth professional club side, after stints at the Wests Tigers, Brisbane Broncos and South Sydney in the NRL and Leinster in rugby).
Although I understand this is an era in which Jarryd Hayne – a trailblazer for code hoppers everywhere – can opt to pull on a Fijian sevens jumper over an Australian one and Semi Radradra can abandon Fiji to play for the Kangaroos, that doesn’t mean it should become the norm.
If Te’o plays for England over Australia next month, will his cap take pride of place in the pool room next to his Kangaroos squad tracksuit? Or would the white offset the blue of his Samoan jersey?
Granted, there was once a time when Te’o would have been ostracised from Union for the heinous crime of being a former professional league player.
We don’t want to go back to that era.
But eligibility rules must be cleaned up. Something that will help the so-called ‘smaller nations’ in both league and union in years to come needs to happen.