Four years after cheering on the Wallabies against the Lions, England centre Ben Te'o has come full circle and is preparing for his Lions Test debut against the All Blacks
Ben Te’o has started just one Test match in union – England’s bizarre match with Italy in February – yet will run out at Eden Park on Saturday as the starting No 12 for the British & Irish Lions.
His selection follows some typically powerful and direct performances that have put him top of the Lions’ charts for metres made, defenders beaten and, his speciality, offloads.
His Lions accolade comes just three years after he switched codes from professional rugby league and will be celebrated in both hemispheres. The Auckland-born Te’o represented Samoa and New Zealand U18 at league and forged his reputation in Australia’s NRL, where he won the Premiership with South Sydney Rabbitohs and played in State of Origin.
Rugby World caught up with Te’o at his English club, Worcester Warriors, just before the tour for an article in our July 2017 issue. He told us about his cosmopolitan life…
My parents met in Auckland, at high school. Dad (Tili) is Samoan and Mum (Linda) is English. Dad is retired now but did different jobs – policeman, traffic officer, lawyer. I have five siblings.
I played union for the majority of my childhood. I played two years of league at seven and eight, then was hooked on it from age 16 upwards. In New Zealand, people chop and change between league and union, it’s not a big deal. It’s all just footie.
I played for Silverdale RFC in North Harbour. Luke McAlister was the guy when I was growing up who we looked up to. He was only a little bit older than me but was very talented. His dad coached the top team and Luke played for them while still at high school. I went to Orewa College and Hibiscus Intermediate, both in North Auckland.
Jonah Lomu was everyone’s hero. He was the Michael Jordan (of rugby). Christian Cullen and Frank Bunce were other guys that most kids wanted to be like. I started as a 15 but was a 13 for the majority of my youth. I also did a stint in the forwards.
At 17 I got a scholarship to Australia. I went to Keebra Park High School, a famous rugby league school on the Gold Coast. Loads of players have come through there. They helped me get a professional contract.
My league grounding helps my union. There’s the physical aspect from the tackling, particularly the high-up wrestling that is starting to come into union. I’ve had ten years of wrestling in league. And beating a defender – I’ve done a lot of work on footwork and leg drive. Rugby league is so physically demanding, it gives you a good grounding.
I switched to union because I wanted to see how I would go. I didn’t want to re-sign with league and keep going for three or four years and then say, ‘I wonder if I’d have been a good union player’.
I chatted to Michael Cheika about it. He was the Waratahs coach and friends with my agent. I wanted to see what he thought in terms of my body shape, how I play the game, would I be suited to it? I was keen on getting out of Australia, experiencing something different as well as taking on union again. He said, ‘Look, I used to coach this team in Dublin called Leinster, they’re a great team’. I didn’t know anything about Leinster but he told me they would teach me the game.
Sam Burgess’s circumstances were different to mine. I was quite happy to disappear and go play rugby. I went to Leinster on a two-year deal but if I’d been no good then I’d have left, I’d have come straight back to league. I wasn’t coming over with any (international) ambition, all I wanted to do was play rugby union.
I moved to England as I’d done my time at Leinster. I felt it was time to move on. I’d heard a lot about the (English) Premiership so I was keen to have a go at that, or go back to Australia to play Super Rugby. Eddie Jones said I’d get an opportunity to impress (for England) if I came to the Premiership.
I’ve had a good learning year. I made my Test debut, played in the autumn series and in the Six Nations. I got to meet and mingle with all the guys and learn off them. It’s been perfect.
The Italy game was frustrating. We got the win but would I like the game to have been different? Yes. There are a lot of guys in that England team who have put in a lot of work on the training park and weren’t getting the same minutes, so a lot of the time we were helping the starters prepare and then we get our opportunity and the game turns out like that (affected by Italy’s no-ruck tactic). So it was unfortunate but it’s just the way it was. You’ve got to work hard and hopefully you get another opportunity.
I wouldn’t say my winning try against France was a highlight. I don’t look at tries as a reflection of how I play. I more admire an 80-minute shift, plenty of involvements, strong carries, work-rate in defence. You might score two tries but not do much else.
The Lions squad announcement mucked with my head. Friends and family sent me stories about the rumours (that he was in the squad) but I don’t believe anything until it happens. I was quite nervous two days out, thinking ‘What if I could?’ or ‘Jeez, now I’d be really upset if I wasn’t picked’, so I was very happy when it was all over. I’m sure there were lots of guys having the same feelings.
The boys at Worcester gave me a good reaction. We watched the announcement as a team. It’s great for the young guys here to see someone from Worcester get that opportunity. I’m sure they’ll be thinking that one day they could have a moment like that. It was a nice moment to be recognised on my rugby union journey, it’s another chapter.
I supported the Wallabies against the 2013 Lions. I was in a State of Origin camp with Queensland and we all watched in the team room as one of our former team-mates, Izzy Folau, made his debut. We were proud of him and all supporting Izzy.
I played in seven State of Origin games. They’re massive occasions and very confrontational, so that experience is really valuable.
Fatigue won’t be a factor for the Lions. Guys have played a season of rugby but you’ll get yourself up for a Lions series against the best team in the world. Guys have been looking forward to it for four years.
I don’t apologise for playing for different countries. People say, ‘I was born here, I grew up here, I represent there’ but it’s not the case for everyone. My parents are from opposite sides of the world, both of their heritages are important to me. I was born and spent my childhood in New Zealand but I also spent a lot of time honing my skills in Australia. I was proud to represent my dad’s (Samoan) heritage in rugby league – he loved that.
My mum means a lot to me too. My surname is Samoan but I really enjoy playing for England, I enjoy the satisfaction Mum gets out of that. She’s proud of me and has come over to watch me play (in England). No matter what anyone says, I’m English and I feel that.
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I can’t wait to zero in on the All Blacks. I’d like to really gel with the squad, learn from them and the coaches. And try to learn the All Blacks inside out because England are going to have to play them eventually.
I’m no Twitter fan. There’s a parody account (@boringben13) done by some loser at home probably, someone with not much of a life.
Eddie Jones is always watching. He’s everywhere. He could be up in that stand, seriously he could be up in that stand (he points) with a fake nose and fake moustache and glasses, watching to see if I’m training well. You never know. He’ll be watching the Lions games. You’ve got to play well and then come back to club land and play well or you won’t be in the England team in November.
New Zealand: B Smith; I Dagg, R Crotty, SB Williams, R Ioane; B Barrett, A Smith; J Moody, C Taylor, O Franks, B Retallick, S Whitelock, J Kaino, S Cane, K Read (capt).
Replacements: 16 N Harris, 17 W Crockett, 18 C Faumuina, 19 S Barrett, 20 A Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 A Cruden/L Sopoaga, 23 A Lienert-Brown.
British & Irish Lions: L Williams; A Watson, J Davies, B Te’o, E Daly; O Farrell, C Murray; M Vunipola, J George, T Furlong, AW Jones, G Kruis, P O’Mahony (capt), S O’Brien, T Faletau.
Replacements: 16 K Owens, 17 J McGrath, 18 K Sinckler, 19 M Itoje, 20 S Warburton, 21 R Webb, 22 J Sexton, 23 L Halfpenny.