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In Praise of Mike Te'o

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In Praise of Mike Te'o

Mike Te'o scored the only try against Russia, but that was evidence of his value, rather than the main reason we sing his praises today. David Barpal photo.

So a little note in praise of Mike Te’o.

Mike Te’o came to national prominence a few years ago, when Belmont Shore Head Coach Ray Egan said to me and colleague Pat Clifton that he had a U19 player who was good enough to play for his men’s team. He’s a n odd player, said Eagan, because he’s a hooker, who can play center, and we’ve got him playing on the wing.

Photos by Colleen McCloskey
Mike Teo v Italy - Colleen McCloskey
Mike Teo being goofy - Colleen McCloskey
The "up-the-jumper" play has been outlawed for some time, but this is just the captain's run, so worth trying something.
Mike Teo National Anthem - Colleen McCloskey

Huh, weird. And Mike Te’o was weird - is weird - as a rugby player. He’s shaped a little funny, with a burly body on top of legs that look too long for his frame. The combination hides his strength and his speed.

He doesn’t look fast, but he is fast. He seems to cover the ground, at any rate, and he seems to chase down wingers on a regular basis. He has that bulky torso, and yet he can dance around and make defenders miss. He’s short - only 5-8 - and that’s a detriment to people who conveniently forget that Tim Horan (5-8 on a good day) won two World Cups at center for Australia. He’s got weird facial hair - he looks like he belongs on the set of a Sergio Leone film.

It all adds up to a player who some coaches don’t know how to use. He’s not really big enough to be a hooker, they said, so let’s put him somewhere else. He’s short, and players who play scrumhalf are short, so let’s put him at scrumhalf. He can’t be a wing, can he?

Here is the indisputable fact about Mike Te’o - he’s a ballplayer. Whenever he has been put in a high performance situation he has shown an excellent engine and a ton of desire - two things that can overcome the loss of a step in speed. He is technique is solid, especially in the tackle. He reads the game. He’s tough. 

Aside from the technique, there are things you can’t really coach. They come with the individual - even the desire to work at it is, in the end, something that has to come from within. But if you watch him play, you’ll see it. At the World Club 7s he was really the only one on his team who battled to the end. Against Chile he scored a try basically hopping over the line because his hamstring had given out. He’s won pretty much everywhere he’s played, and just judging from how players talk about him, and how many times he gets invited to play places, he seems a pretty good teammate, too.

So, it came as little surprise that when Taku Ngwenya went off with a suspected concussion against Italy four minutes into the game, and Te’o was called upon to fill in, he did so admirably. And it came as no surprise that as the game against Russia moved on, and it became clear that the Eagles weren’t going to break it open very easily, Te’o was one of those players who kept up the fight. It’s easy to shrug and say “this box kicking and chasing isn’t getting us tries, so why bother?” And yet Te’o was the guy on the chase every time, not giving up penalties, not dropping the ball, but making tackles and creating chances.

And when the try finally came, it was as the structure started to break down a little. AJ MacGinty looked to create something out of a static situation, raced off left, and who was on his hip but the right wing, Te’o. He got the pass and off he went.

So, here we are, in praise of Mike Te’o, the hooker, scrumhalf, wing, fullback. He could play center, or flanker, I have no doubt. I think it would be fun just to have him pick his game day position out of a hat. Why? Because he breaks the mold. By playing hard, playing very smart, and playing with a lot of desire, Mike Te’o is a rugby player first, and a (pick your position) wing or scrumhalf or something else second. And we’re lucky that his ability is being recognized.