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Saturday 3 December 2016

Ben can strike a winning note

'I had to fall back in love with rugby to be honest'

Leinster’s Ben Te'o is tackled by Edinburgh's Damien Hoyland in their recent PRO12 clash at the RDS Arena, Ballsbridge (SPORTSFILE)
Leinster’s Ben Te'o is tackled by Edinburgh's Damien Hoyland in their recent PRO12 clash at the RDS Arena, Ballsbridge (SPORTSFILE)

It is a sad reality for Leinster that they have probably groomed Ben Te'o for international rugby with England.

He could even evolve into the difference-maker his great mate Sam Burgess didn't have the patience to become.

The New Zealander with the English heritage has been able to relearn the game away from the forensic eye of the media, while Burgess was pushed too hard, too fast by his club and country coaches.

"When I first got here, I was put on a flight over to Wales. I played some B&I game in Carmarthen, you know what I mean," he smiled.

Madding

It was officially recorded as 200 men and their dogs territory on October 25 of 2014, far from the madding crowd of 83,833 that witnessed his South Sydney Rabbitohs claim the National Rugby League Grand Final trophy earlier that month.

Te'o was willing to plummet from superstar status to rugby union nobody.

"I think I had to fall back in love with rugby to be honest to really make sure I excelled," he reflected.

"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 long away from the game and was this going to be too hard.

"But, I just really, really wanted to give it a good crack."

He had the considerable advantage over Burgess of having started out in union, playing for the New Zealand U16s, before moving to Australia's Gold Coast as a 17 year-old where he switched to Rugby League.

He was able to make his mistakes, adapt and grow his game away without the hype and burden of the World Cup.

"I had a lot more experience, learning all the steps. He went in pretty early, didn't he?

"He was also playing two positions at once, so I can see how that would have been very difficult."

Whether by design of accident, Te'o arrived at a club which nurtured and developed his gifts for physicality, nimble footwork, soft hands, a big fend and work ethic.

He was protected when Burgess was exposed to too much, too soon and, at flanker and centre, to two positions.

"It was pretty important to come to a club like this with so much experience, guys who have won things, for them to be so good to me.

"I came in and there were probably some guys looking over their shoulder thinking 'I don't know about this guy', but they all helped me. I'd have to say the majority, 80 per cent of all things I've learned in rugby union, has come from my team-mates, giving you little tips; 'you could straighten up here, you could do this, do that' so, that's where most of my learning has come from."

The re-integration of Te'o was hampered by a fractured forearm in his first PRO12 League encounter against Edinburgh.

He had to deal with coming back from that at a time when he was already so far behind in game knowledge.

Attract

The close-to-17-stones centre made up the lost ground and for lost time well enough to attract the interest of other clubs.

The financial lure of a monster contract from Worcester Warriors - English sources then valued it as the fourth highest in The Premiership - was something he couldn't turn down.

The option was there to prolong his Leinster stay to become Ireland qualified in 2017.

"Sometimes I thought a year is a long time," he said. "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."

All the same, there is a deep desire to win the PRO12 League with Leinster.

"I have changed club a couple of times now and one thing I've always learned is you really got to go out strong, give the organisation and the fans your best and they will remember you in a nice way.

"I know I signed (for Worcester) a while ago but it has been pretty important to play every game hard."

It was right there in his fist-pumping celebration from making two huge hits that denied Munster at The Aviva.

"I just thought that game was over. Then, when we gave that penalty away, my eyes lit up when (Dave) Kilcoyne tapped it.

"You know, it's just something where you just keep playing till it's over.

"I was pretty happy to get that win to be honest.

"There was a great atmosphere that day."

Ulster won't exactly be a Leinster-friendly destination on Saturday evening (Kingspan Stadium, 3.00pm).

"I've played up there before, so I just expect the same," he added.

"It is intense from a backs point of view. They have a back-line full of potential and internationals and that is exciting for me.

"It is another job to get to go against some of the best in the country."

It just isn't the country of his choice.

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