Monday 19 February 2018

Toulon in crosshairs as key weapon Ben Te'o 'starts to deliver'

Ben Te’o has adapted quickly after crossing codes to escape old life
Ben Te’o has adapted quickly after crossing codes to escape old life
David Kelly

David Kelly

It was an emotional hug, at once enfolding them within so many mutual memories, yet also embracing the promise of a sunny future.

As their Bath and Leinster colleagues reacted to Champions Cup victory and defeat, Sam Burgess and Ben Te'o sought each other through the foggy mist emanating from bedraggled bodies.

Not so long ago, they had inhabited an entirely different world, a different code, a different culture. They were different too. Burgess is a son of West Yorkshire, England; Te'o from the Hibiscus Coast of Auckland, New Zealand. Burgess, immersed in league from birth; Ben grew up playing union.

They would forge a lasting friendship at Russell Crowe's South Sydney Rabbitohs, helping their side to win last year's NRL Grand Final, before deciding to pursue a union career in the northern hemisphere. Except that Burgess always knew he would eventually leave. Te'o's departure was forced upon him.


If the increasingly angst-ridden Leinster supporters were desperately seeking solace from the wreckage of last weekend's humiliation in Newport, the performance of Te'o may have offered sustenance.

His two-try performance - featuring searing lines of running, steps off either feet and effortless fends - may offer fans the chance to re-adjust expectations ahead of a Marseille trip that many suspect represents an exercise in sporting futility.

Five months after the RDS fright night when the 28-year-old broke his arm just 19 minutes into his professional union debut, perhaps now is the time Ireland will see just what Te'o has to offer the game.

"He's impressed me a lot in how he's learned really quickly," observes Jimmy Gopperth, another import who shone beyond Sunday's bleakness.

"He's really keen to understand the game and he's adapted really quickly. Each game he has gotten better and better.

"He's a massive threat with ball in hand, he's so powerful and he can move quickly.

"It's about giving him the best possible opportunity to get him in space and let him do his thing. We've got to get on his shoulder, because he loves to offload. It's something different."

Like a lot of Leinster's play this season, they have struggled to adapt their game to him rather than the other way around; only Treviso have off-loaded less than limp Leinster. Matt O'Connor, a former dual player himself, has always been confident that Te'o can deliver.

"He attacks that edge, he defends on that edge, so a lot of the running lines, the defensive reads, a lot of those things are very, very similar," says O'Connor.

"Athletically, we're really comfortable he'll deliver something at the top end.

"From my experience, the guys that have had the understanding of both codes as kids certainly make the transition across that much easier and better in most cases. He has played a hell of a lot of union in his youth, until he was 16 or 17."

Te'o's father, Til, was a rugby league player himself until injury re-routed him towards a legal career, but his son initially played union until the family left for Queensland as a 17-year-old, from where he began his successful league career.

In 2008, he represented Samoa at the Rugby League World Cup while playing for Wests Tigers, from where he joined Brisbane Broncos before linking up with the South Sydney Rabbitohs; it was there he realised his huge potential.

But behind the impressive rise to prominence would be unearthed the reasons behind why he ultimately would be forced to turn his back on his adopted country.

Two years ago, he was accused of assaulting a woman who, despite refusing to issue a statement to police, subsequently bared all to a TV station.

Despite the fact that he was never arrested or charged, and was completely cleared by the NRL integrity unit, the allegations stuck like mud and he was regularly baited by opposition fans and on social media.

It was the beginning of the end of his love affair with league and it also cost him thousands of Australian dollars in legal fees and sponsorship deals.

The publicity of his innocence was utterly muted in disproportion to the wholly unproven allegations.

The incident irrevocably altered his perception on so many things in life and prompted him to decide that he had to leave this one behind.

Ultimately, he hooked up with O'Connor and Leinster, despite the inordinate spotlight bequeathed by his midfield successor, Brian O'Driscoll.


Te'o was never expected to be a direct replacement but he can offer something that the side desperately need in both his ability to break the line with awesome power and speed and his deft handling ability.

"He's learning and we need to give him time to develop," O'Connor has said; his new team-mates recall that the player had no idea what to do at breakdowns; ongoing evidence suggests he still does not.

"He's done a pretty good job," adds O'Connor. "He adds thrust in midfield and he's an outstanding threat with the ball. He gets his hands free and offloads, gets behind defenders. He's starting to deliver."

Leinster may need him to this weekend against Mathieu Bastareaud and Co; they have struggled to provide a platform for their best attacking strengths all season and the clock is ticking.

"If we use him well," notes Gopperth, "we can use him as a threat or a decoy and it makes the defence second-guess.

"And it's a good dynamic to have a guy like that in your backline to make people question 'what's he going to do, because I have to be here or otherwise he'll run on top of me'."

This could be the moment for Ben Te'o to make the big impression everyone expects of him.

Irish Independent

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