By STEVE MASCORD
BEN Te’o has heard his new team, South Sydney, is having quite a good season. “I see them in the paper and they’re doing well,” the Queensland Origin star and Samoan international tells A-List as we sit in the sunshine after Brisbane Broncos training at Red Hill.
“But I can’t say that … I haven’t watched one of their games.”
You read that right; the hard-hitting Brisbane back rower is no footy head. Not even close. “I don’t watch much football,” the well-spoken 25-year-old explains, “I don’t have pay TV, I try not to watch too much. I see the highlights sometimes,
“I’ve never been that interested in it. You know, if there’s a Channel Nine game on of a Sunday and I’m sitting there, I’ll watch it. I’m more your reality TV kind of guy. I’d rather watch Jersey Shore online or something.
“I love footy but as you know, I train every day. I talk about footy here. We’ve got meetings and training and ‘running these lines’ and that. Now when I watch football, I see it from a different point of view now so it’s not as entertaining for me.”
For a man who does not consume footy news to any great degree, Te’o has an uncanny habit of creating it. It’s not just the move to Souths; his shoulder charge on Wests Tiger Matt Groat at the start of the season pretty much kicked off the debate on the technique, which is still raging.
And his selection for Queensland in Origin III, in place of the man he will replace at Redfern – Dave Taylor, spiced up the season’s other burning issue, representative eligibility. Te’o was only discovered when he had already made the New Zealand Under 16s side and was invited to Keebra Park High, who have a well-known alliance with Wests Tigers.
While Keebra alumni Benji Marshall now captains New Zealand, Te’o is a Queensland Origin player, via junior Kiwi representation and the Samoan World Cup squad. He’s a better, more passionate talker on the subject than most in his situation but for the sake of illuminating the issue, we’ll run his answer to my second question on the topic first: does he agree with Feleti Mateo that if he misses out of Australian selection, he should be able to represent his island nation at the World Cup next year?
“I do share that view because I think it’s very important that we keep pumping time and effort into developing nations,” he says. “I think it’s another spectacle for the game, international football, and I still think that – you know – if guys like Mateo can’t make NSW, why not let them play for Tonga? Why not put more effort into it and inspire young kids that maybe they want to grow up and play for Tonga one day. I think it’s important that teams like Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Tonga and even Italy and that now … it’s good for the game.
“When the time comes at the end of next year, I guess that’s when everyone will be trying to sort out which teams they can play for. Everyone wants a free trip to the UK. I’ll decide next year.”
But when Brisbane AAP reporter Wayne Heming showed Ben the ‘Te’o remix’ of the “That’s In Queensland” spoof – mocking the origins of him and other Maroons stars – at a team medical this year, the burly second rower was not impressed. “There’s a lot of pressure in that week. I was pretty focused,” he says now.
“I was just focused on the game. It’s not that I wasn’t amused, right then and there it didn’t have a reaction for it. I was there to talk about the game and get prepared.”
And so we go back to the first question on this topic: how should eligibility work. As I said, Ben is passionate.
“I just think, for me, it was a choice I made a long time ago,” he says. “I made it back in 2008. That was where I wanted to go, that’s where I was going to be most happy and if I didn’t make it, I was always going to hang around – you know?
“I just wanted it so bad and I think it would be unfair to say ‘no! You can’t play, you’ve got to do … “, you know? How it is now, I think it’s fine. It’s where you want to be, it’s what you want for your career. That’s how it should be.
“It was everything and more. For me, it’s been a long journey to get there, you know? I got to be 18th man in 2010, I’ve done two emerging squads, I’ve been hanging around. To finally get the opportunity after 2011 with two broken arms and missing out.
“It’s like that whole thing for Sam Kasiano right now: it’s what HE wants, it’s what his family wants. No-one should be telling him ‘you’re playing for New Zealand or you’re playing for Queensland’.
“It’s his career. He’s worked his whole life for it, from when he was a young kid or whatever. It’s his dream. That’s where he should be allowed to play.”
Of course, players want to play at the highest level they can. If they can represent an Australian state and still get a trip to the World Cup with another country, they’ll take it. But it’s difficult for both Ben’s scenarios to play out – for the developing nations to be encouraged when all their best players follow his route to Origin and Australia.
But at least Te’o has an opinion and is willing to express it – like on what was going wrong at the Broncos as they crashed by 20 points to Parramatta last week. “A lot of teams – and maybe us – get a bit comfortable in the top eight and start looking towards finals before you’re even there,” he concedes.
“(Sometimes) the harder you try, the worse it is. You’re panicking, people start trying to do things by themselves to stop it, it just ends up backfiring. I think that game was lost right at the start, with the physicality. They were more physical than us, they wanted it more.”
We don’t have time for small-talk. When he was at Wests Tigers, in 2007 and 2008, Te’o was known for his thunderous hits – and nothing has changed.
“Over there at Tigers, I was a bit of an impact player. I used to tackle hard, run hard, offload and now – as I’ve evolved – I do a lot more work. I focus on doing a lot of work coming out of our end and trying to be more of a team player than an individual.”
So what about shoulder charges?
“Safety is paramount – safety of the players,” he answers. “So if they decide that it’s getting too dangerous and players’ welfare is at risk … if they’re going to ban them, they’re going to ban them. You just adjust to it. They change rules all the time and you’ve just got to adjust. If they came out and said ‘no more shoulder charges, then I wouldn’t do anymore shoulder charges.”
The tactic can put the aggressor off his game as well as the target, he says. “It can be if you think you’re going to get some weeks. It is like ‘I’m in trouble here’ and you will be a bit cautious. I think if you go into games being a bit cautious, you get away from what kind of player you really are. That’s how I play – aggressive style and sometimes…”
Ben may not watch a lot of football but he knows many coaches have come out in support of shoulder charges recently – and that strikes him as unusual.
“It’s funny, a lot of coaches are coming out and saying they support the shoulder charge and whatever but every coach I’ve ever had has told me not to do them,” he says bluntly.
“I remember Tim (Sheens) used to tell me not to do them, you know, Hook (Anthony Griffin) tells me not to do them, Ivan (Henjak) was the same, he didn’t really like them. They were probably not a good play in terms of percentages.”
So, ahem, why does Ben Te’o shoulder require a licence in most mainland states?
“If someone is running at me hard, in the moment of the game I’m not thinking about it…
“You just do it.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK