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After a difficult year, rugby league player Ben Te'o is being tipped as a possible future Rabbitohs captain. By Richard Cooke.
Credit: Photograph: Eddy Krangle

Forward thinking: Ben Te’o, 27, rugby league player

Ben Te’o plays for the South Sydney Rabbitohs, the Queensland Maroons, the Prime Minister’s XIII and the Kangaroos. After being cleared last year by Queensland Police and the NRL’s integrity unit over an alleged assault on a Brisbane woman, he’s being tipped as a possible future Rabbitohs captain. 

RC You’ve said you used to be all about the big plays, and now you’re about the winning plays. 

Ben Te’o When I first started playing first grade, I liked to try and score tries, and throw offloads, that kind of stuff. But as you get older, you realise that doing something individually is not always what’s best for the team. Sometimes it’s better to stay in structure, make little plays like shutting the gate, keeping pressure, taking a run out of my end. Things that I suppose no one really notices – but my teammates do. 

RC Part of that is coach Michael Maguire. He’s known for testing his players, regardless of reputation.

BT One hundred per cent. He was pretty hard on me in terms of how he wanted things done, and just challenged me all the time to get better. That first pre-season I got down here was a real difficult time for me.

RC Some players struggle with being critiqued.

BT I don’t think I was resistant, but sometimes, I probably thought to myself, “I just can’t do anything right.” I’ve come from a different system defensively, and I’ve just been struggling with things that are natural to me. To get them out of my game and transfer to his style … I was quite willing to learn but I was very frustrated and always seemed to be a step behind. But as the pre-season went on, I caught up and ended up working well.

RC You’ve played with more teams than just about anyone on the NRL: the Broncos, the Tigers, the Rabbitohs and the Maroons; and internationally New Zealand, Samoa and now Australia. 

BT I suppose that’s just part of being a footballer – you’ve got to go in different organisations and mould yourself around the way they do things. But in terms of personality, I don’t have a problem with changing teams and making new friends. You could drop me off anywhere in any team, I’d be getting along with everyone pretty quick. 

RC You’re concentrating more on your own preparation now.

BT As you mature, you think and you learn – I just realise there were a lot of things I was doing when I was younger … I mean, I didn’t know anything about diet back then. I didn’t know the right foods to eat and what foods do what. I didn’t realise about the alcohol intake. But as you get older, you take preparation and that kind of stuff very seriously. I just want to get the most out of my body, get the most out of my career.

RC There’s a different kind of inspiration from seeing players who don’t look after themselves. 

BT Yeah. I think it’s hard. And a lot of it happens when they’re young. That’s probably when the problems start with things like alcohol and not really taking a serious approach to the game. And, I mean, I’ve been there before. A lot of kids are happy to just be in the NRL, but if you don’t look after yourself and your body … I’ve seen older guys really trying to play catch-up, but once you wear out your body or you don’t treat it right, it’s going to come back and bite you. And I’ve seen guys who at 28, 29 are just really struggling, and all because they didn’t look after themselves at an early age.

RC It’s early in the season, but shoulder charges are causing controversy again. Can they survive? 

BT They’re going to disappear. The research is there to back up what the NRL is trying to do – look out for player safety. And the last thing I want is for people to have issues later in their career, or later in life from things like shoulder charge and concussions. I’m all for players’ safety. In terms of myself, in my game, sometimes in the heat of the moment your instincts come out. But I think with the younger guys coming through who aren’t doing it at juniors, it’s going to just be gone from the game.

RC Do you see a premiership in the near future [South Sydney last won a premiership in 1971]?

BT I hope so. I mean, that’s what we’re playing for right now. We’ve worked hard during this off-season, that’s been our main goal. I’m not really looking towards the premiership, I’m looking towards having a really good year, enjoying the year, enjoying week-to-week games, enjoying seeing some of these young guys come through and get better.

RC There are people who get to the end of their career in the NRL and other professional sports and realise they haven’t really enjoyed it. 

BT I think about that all the time. Sometimes I’ve looked at my career and maybe I’ve enjoyed things too much, and then at other times I’ve been a bit too full-on and the season’s just gone right past me I never really enjoyed it. But this year I really want to enjoy every game, all the travel. I really want to have a lot of fun with all that.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 29, 2014 as "Forward thinking". Subscribe here.

Richard Cooke
is a journalist and writer for television. He is The Saturday Paper's sports editor.