England can strike gold with Te’o

Date published: May 25 2016

Manu Tuilagi’s injury means that the most experienced of England’s uncapped quartet heading to Australia has a prominent role to play.

That’s not to say that Ben Te’o is a nailed-on 50 cap centre in the making either. There’s too much work ahead to make that kind of call.

Nevertheless, Leinster’s Player of the Season has shown enough in his first full season to indicate that he has the ability to be a powerful force on both sides of the ball at Test level.

Except with Te’o there’s the right level of dexterity to go with his strength. In his combination alongside Irish prospect Garry Ringrose at Leinster he has shown a subtlety to his passing game, which coupled with his footwork make him an enticing prospect. His offloading too, as would be expected from one of the formerly top players in rugby league, is also exceptional.

That power though is a key reason why Eddie Jones has been so enthusiastic to include him at the earliest opportunity.

In attack he can replicate Tuilagi’s directness off first-phase ball from the set-piece, while being used effectively too as a decoy runner. On defence he won’t miss tackles and will make sure attackers know they have been hit.

Some of those qualities sound all too familiar. The exit of Sam Burgess from Bath and England only came seven months ago but it feels like a lifetime, buried deep by the consequent exit of Stuart Lancaster and England’s Grand Slam this year.

Jones and England based off that might understandably have a bit of trepidation about slotting another Rabbitoh into their backline.

But when the praise from Ireland regarding Te’o’s exploits is so glowing, and his departure from Leinster so lamented, those fears should be eased.

Te’o, prior to joining Leinster, had a Union background of playing as a centre until he was 17 and switched to League, embarking on an outstanding career culminating with the Rabbitohs’ 2014 title that he won alongside Burgess.

More crucially he was able to develop and fine-tune his game away from the megawatt spotlight which tracked every move Burgess made when trying to find his feet in the game, and trying to learn how to play two positions as a back-row and centre.

Te’o’s level of experience was enough for then Leinster boss Matt O’Connor, now at the Reds, to be convinced that Te’o had the potential to be a hit when he brought him to Dublin in 2014, although even he admitted to the Daily Telegraph the speed of his progression has come as a surprise.

“What I had seen indicated to me that he would be a fantastic rugby player and from that perspective, once I dug a bit deeper and found out his background as a rugby midfielder until about 17, I was pretty confident that he would make the transition and end up being pretty bloody good. And he has been.”

Good enough it seems to be a Test rugby player for England, or Australia. Reports on Tuesday that Te’o had hoped to be a Wallaby only to be blocked by World Rugby’s residency rules given he was born in New Zealand, despite having lived in Australia for over a decade, were greeted with the usual negative reaction towards the current residency regulations.

Te’o wanting to play for the country where he was a citizen for ten years, and where his partner hails from, is hardly a shock. Equally, he has every right to play for England given his mother’s heritage.

Now there’s a chance for Te’o to line up in England’s midfield opposite his old Brisbane Broncos teammate Israel Folau as England gun for a first-ever Test series win in Australia.

Before that though, he has a PRO12 title to try and win with Leinster against Connacht on Saturday.

by Ben Coles