As news broke of league convert Ben Te’o moving to Worcester to improve his international chances by representing England, memories of the national side’s recent past of flirting with rugby league players and tactics came back to haunt many fans.
Reported by Pundit Arena’s Brian Barry, Te’o is leaving Leinster because he qualifies for England through his English mother. Moreover, it is believed England coach Eddie Jones is very keen to make him part of his plans for the national side as soon as possible, even during the upcoming summer tour to Australia.
Yet England’s constant desire to poach talent from rugby league has rarely benefitted the team at Test level. The last league convert who genuinely made a huge impact was Jason Robinson, a true legend in both codes of the game. Since then, however, his success appears to have motivated former England coaches Andy Robinson, Brian Ashton, Martin Johnson and Stuart Lancaster to try out a veritable plethora of league converts in various positions.
Along with rugby league coaches in Phil Larder, Mike Ford and Andy Farrell, players included: Henry Paul, Lesley Vainikolo, Joel Tomkins, Chev Walker, Kyle Eastmond, Karl Pryce, Chris Ashton, Andy Farrell, Shontayne Hape and Stephen Myler. These are just some of the names that come to mind. Out of that list only Ashton has managed to make himself into a quality Test player, and like Robinson before him both were primarily wingers. What has been so frustrating about a lot of these converts is how many of them have been perceived as long-term options in England’s troublesome centre positions.
Outside of Ashton and Robinson, the rest managed a handful of caps or sank without trace having not made it to the senior side. The most successful have been those who have come to the game at a relatively young age and spent the time developing into proper union players, the likes of Ashton, Myler and Eastmond.
Of course, one would have hoped Lancaster would have learnt his lesson after Joel Tomkins proved to be somewhat average as a union Test player, but instead he spent a lot of time, effort and energy in trying to make Sam Burgess into a Test centre, despite Bath coach Mike Ford insisting Burgess would be more of a success at flanker, where he had been playing for his club all season.
Burgess was not a dismal failure, but it is still difficult to fathom how Lancaster and his coaches saw him as a superior prospect to the more experienced union players Henry Slade and Luther Burrell.
Now Jones is looking at Te’o as a possible option at centre and one has to wonder: why? England have a lot of options at centre including Farrell, Joseph, Slade, Tuilagi, Daly, Devoto, Eastmond, Burrell and more. Using any time to develop the 29-year-old as an international centre would be wasteful when it could be spent on the continued improvement of our already established players.
Unfortunately, Jones is no stranger to league converts himself. His Australian side of 2003 included Wendell Sailor, Matt Rogers and Lote Tuqiri – all solid international players, particularly Tuqiri, but again used primarily as back three players rather than in arguably more technical positions like centre or fly-half.
Some would argue that one of the world’s best centres is a league convert. Sonny Bill Williams has been a true success story for the All Blacks, but unlike Burgess he spent two seasons at Toulon developing his game before he moved on to New Zealand.
Moreover, he was just 23 when he signed for Toulon. Te’o, on the other hand, is now 29 and would be 32 or 33 by the time the 2019 World Cup comes around. His situation is similar to Andy Farrell’s when he signed for Saracens in the twilight years of his career.
Te’o himself has already played 34 games for Leinster and has been quietly making a name for himself in Ireland, unlike Burgess who was always inevitably surrounded by press hype. It may that Te’o can succeed for England and offer something different to the options we have at the moment, but do Eddie Jones and his coaches need to invest that extra time in his development when so many good options are already available and have been playing union all their careers?
So many rugby league players have been brought over to union with the best of intentions, but rarely have they succeeded for England. With all the media sideshows that come with risky conversions, is it still worth the effort? Time will tell in the case of Te’o, but Jones would do well to concentrate on all the talent he already has at his disposal.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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