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Te’o waits for the phone call he thought would never come

As former Queensland State of Origin star Ben Te’o waits for the phone call on Thursday which will reportedly confirm his shock selection in Warren Gatland’s 40-man British and Irish Lions squad to tour New Zealand, he would be well advised to reflect on just how fast his star has risen since switching codes in the wake of winning the 2014 NRL Premiership with the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
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After a successful league career with the Wests Tigers, Brisbane Broncos and then Souths, seven Origin appearances and a Rugby League World Cup cameo for Samoa, the Auckland-born star opted to head to Irish province Leinster to try his hand at rugby a little under three years ago.

Now at English Premiership strugglers Worcester, the centre has made eight appearances in the white jersey of Eddie Jones’ England, albeit only chalking up a solitary start – in an untidy victory over Italy which was mired by the home side’s legal, yet controversial no-ruck tactics.

Having qualified for the national side via his English mother, Te’o earned a deserved reputation as an aptly named impact player, coming off the bench with marked success as Jones’s side retained their Six Nations title.

However, it is not a label that sits comfortably with the 30-year-old Lion-in-waiting: “It’s not something I like doing,” he told England’s Times newspaper.

“I’ve never liked not starting a game. When you’re in a training camp with England, it’s such an intense environment and you put a lot into the training. Then it comes to game day and you only get 20 minutes …”

“You don’t want to say, ‘I’m an impact player.’ I’d never want to say that” he added.

He may be typecast, but it is this reputation which will see the rookie picked ahead of eminent centres including compatriot Jonathan Joseph, Ireland’s Jared Payne and Garry Ringrose, Scotland’s Huw Jones and Wales’ Scott Williams.

“You play whatever role you’re given,” he said. “But you can start to be seen as a certain type. You play for 20 minutes and feel like you’ve got so much more to give.”

Previously, Te’o had spoken cooly on the subject of the Lions, suggesting that not even he believed his career would lead him to the storied shirt so late in his career – and so soon after his switch: “I know the significance of the Lions but I can’t say I grew up wanting to be a British Lion,” he told the Times.

The subject of a fierce tug-of-war between Ireland, England and , Te’o eventually opted to swap Leinster for Worcester and throw his hat into the ring for a shot under Jones – and the gamble has paid off handsomely.

“I’d had meetings with [ head coach] Michael Cheika, and going back there was a possibility,” he said. “Eddie said he could only pick players who play in the Premiership but, if I came over here and played good rugby, he’d have a look at me. I just chose what felt right.”

The popular centre says he was inspired to widen his horizons after watching his former Broncos teammate – and one-time flatmate Israel Folau – swap league for AFL, and then rugby.

“However successful people say Israel was in AFL, in his head he was successful,” Te’o said. “He gave it a go and the most important thing was that he learnt a lot about himself along the way. You’ve got to challenge yourself sometimes and I wanted to do that.”

When Te’o answers the call on Thursday, he will join the ranks of such luminaries as Jack ‘Iron Man’ Matthews, Mike Gibson, Jeremy Guscott, Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll.

Perhaps more importantly, he will achieve what many thought 2014 Premiership-winning teammate Sam Burgess might, and rubber-stamp a successful conversion to the code. Big shout out to this bloke, when I first thought about going to Rugby Union he was the first guy to tell me I could make it. Told me it wasn’t too late to learn, that I had the talent, just to back myself. And two and a bit years later we are playing a test match against each other.A post shared by Ben Te’o (@ben.teo) on Dec 6, 2016 at 10:25pm PST

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