The parallels between the careers of current England centre Ben Te’o and 2015 World Cup squad member Sam Burgess are numerous and obvious.
Both are impressive physical specimens, with Te’o weighing in at almost 17 stone and 6 foot 2 in height, with Burgess even more colossal at 6 foot 5 and 18 stone. Both were teammates at South Sydney Rabbitohs in Australia’s National Rugby League, and both swapped codes to feature at centre for England.
Yet whereas few could argue that Burgess’ union career was anything but a short-lived flop, Te’o has taken a much longer and windier path to get to the place where he is now.
On Sunday afternoon the Auckland-born Worcester player will make his first start for his adopted country having previously made five appearances off the bench as a ‘finisher’. Te’o’s start is just reward for a player who has helped England to victory over both France and Wales in recent weeks, scoring the match-winning try in one and contributing to a much improved second half in the other.
In contrast, Burgess was given his first start for his country after having spent much of his Premiership season at flanker for Bath. His solid performance against France in a World Cup warm-up was enough to persuade then coach Stuart Lancaster to name the league convert in his squad for the tournament ahead of the likes of the far more established Luther Burrell.
It was a significant gamble on Lancaster’s part given the lack of game time Burgess had had in union at all, let alone at centre. In total the Dewsbury-born giant made only 21 appearances for his club.
Compare that to Te’o and you start to understand why he has enjoyed a smoother transition into union. At Leinster, he featured in 40 games for the province over two seasons, honing his skills and getting to grips with the challenges of a new sport in a new position.
By the time Eddie Jones came to add Te’o to his squad for the summer tour to Australia in 2016, the league convert had already put in a number of impressive performances in a dedicated position.
Being in Ireland and heralded as a potential future Irish union representative rather than wearing the Red Rose meant the glare of the often intrusive British media was away from Te’o and he was able to transition into the sport without the pressure that comes from the expectation that the press in this country love to engineer.
Sadly, the arrival of Burgess to union was met with much fanfare from most sections of the media and it never let up from the moment he first put pen to paper for his Premiership club.
The exploits of another league convert, Sonny Bill Williams, added to that pressure, with the New Zealander becoming an integral part of the All Blacks squad having been a roaring success in league previously. Yet unlike Burgess, Sonny Bill had spent two seasons at Toulon before moving back to his home country and taking on the added responsibility of being a test player.
Likewise, former England wing Chris Ashton spent several seasons at Northampton Saints before getting anywhere near the national set-up, having switched over to union from Wigan Warriors.
Whilst Burgess made no real mistakes during England’s brief World Cup campaign, much of the media focus was on the player in the build-up to games, and trying to integrate such an inexperienced individual into a test side in any context would be difficult enough, let alone in the white hot pressure of a home World Cup.
Now Te’o has been patient and has bided his time. He has had a relaxed approach to his time in union, stating in a recent interview (via The Telegraph):
“When I came here (to Europe) I didn’t think along the lines of playing international rugby. Sam came to England and did his thing and I went my way. I really only came to play rugby, whether that was two years of club rugby and then head home. I wanted some variety in my career, I felt stale. I came here because I wanted to give it a go.”
And therein lies the difference between Burgess and Te’o. The latter has been given the time and space to slowly and carefully develop a deeper understanding of a fundamentally different sport, whereas the former was under incredible pressure and scrutiny to suddenly find his way in union and become the hero for his country in its hour of need.
At 30 years old, Te’o has a glorious chance to force his way into Eddie Jones’ plans for Tokyo in 2019, and given the way he has fitted in to the side it’s becoming increasingly likely that the former Samoa league international will go on to represent his adopted nation at the next edition of union’s showpiece event.
Sunday’s game against Italy is just the latest milestone in that long and winding path Te’o has taken to achieve his success.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
On this week’s Oval Office Podcast, Rob Henderson tells us about Ireland’s 12 potential Lions, Paddy Butler identifies weaknesses in the French game plan, Mako Vunipola discusses the challenge of facing Tadhg Furlong and historian David Toms relives Ireland’s 2007 clash with England in Croke Park.