Bateman centre of attention as Kiwi Test looms

England's Ryan Hall skips away from France's Remy Marginet (right).
England's Ryan Hall skips away from France's Remy Marginet (right).
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BEFORE this mauling of France, there was a consensus of opinion that Sam Tomkins would return to the England side for Sunday’s first Test against New Zealand with full-back Zak Hardaker moved to centre.

It seemed unthinkable that head coach Steve McNamara would not find a place for the current Man of Steel somewhere even given fellow No 1 Tomkins’s expected return to fitness.

However, after seeing John Bateman deliver a near-perfect debut performance at centre during England’s record-breaking 15-try massacre, suddenly there is a chain of thought that the Bradfordian, too, must be in that side to face the mighty Kiwis.

Bateman, who left his home town club for Wigan Warriors at the end of 2013, is traditionally a second-row but has been used effectively as a centre for the beaten Grand Finalists this term.

There were still some eyebrows raised, though, when McNamara selected him there on Saturday especially as Bateman was preferred to Huddersfield Giants’ Leroy Cudjoe and another in-form centre, Castleford Tigers captain Michael Shenton, did not even make his 24-man squad.

Nevertheless, the 22-year-old instantly proved he has all the requisite skills as an international centre with as good a debut as you are likely to see.

It was not just down to his two tries, the first a classy effort as he surged into space and then dummied luckless French full-back Morgan Escare.

It was more so for the guile shown when slipping Ryan Hall away for the Leeds Rhinos winger’s own brace with the sort of deft, accurate passing that would have left the likes of Jamie Lyon or Matt Gidley satisfied.

Hardaker could still play centre at Hull alongside Leeds colleague Kallum Watkins with McNamara perhaps sacrificing Elliot Whitehead, the Canberra Raiders-bound Catalans second-row who did little against France to secure his place, for Bateman’s inclusion in the pack.

Bateman, for his part, does not care where he features.

“At Wigan, Waney (coach Shaun Wane) pulled me aside and said he wanted me to play different positions and be able to do that,” explained the Yorkshireman, as England easily eclipsed their previous best scoreline against the French of 73-6 in 1996.

“Obviously, it’s helped me in the long run. It’s been good.

“I’ve still got a few more things to learn and looking at people like Kallum, watching and seeing what he does, is really good for me. I probably prefer being in the middle but I’ll play wherever I get put.

“Steve just said through the week ‘run at centre’ and that’s what I’ve done. Obviously I know Steve well. He signed me at Bradford.

“Scoring that first try was probably one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.

“You try and not show your emotion but I was really happy with how it all went.”

Bateman had played second-row, loose-forward and even prop at Odsal but never centre – “I’ve probably slimmed down a bit at Wigan!” – yet he certainly looks the part now.

If staying in the three-quarters against the Kiwis, who had a far sterner warm-up against Leeds on Friday, the former England Academy captain is l ikely to face the talented Dean Whare.

“You want to test yourself against the best and obviously he’s one of the those,” said Bateman. “Hopefully, I get the nod. I caught a bit of Friday’s game. New Zealand didn’t start too well but look at how they ran away with it at the end (34-16).

“They’ve obviously got people like Isaac Luke and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who are world-class players. We need to keep an eye on them.”

In contrast, France, missing around a dozen players and including some part-timers, did not really have anyone England needed to keep an eye on.

They were 18-0 down inside eight minutes and, though winger Olivier Arnaud hit back, it was a fleeting, solitary response as they suffered a 14th straight defeat against England since their last victory in 1981.

After the break, the shambolic visitors did not even touch the ball until the 58th minute.

England ran in six successive tries, young Wigan half-back George Williams impressing on his own debut controlling things with Gareth Widdop, while Huddersfield second-row Brett Ferres confirmed his spot against the Kiwis with a second half hat-trick.

Other try scorers were James Roby (2), Watkins, former Hull KR hooker Josh Hodgson, Liam Farrell, debutant winger Joe Burgess, Williams and Tom Burgess, while Widdop ended with 12 goals.

England: Hardaker; J Burgess, Watkins, Bateman, Hall; Widdop, Williams; Graham, Hodgson, Hill, Whitehead, Farrell, O’Loughlin. Substitutes: Roby, T Burgess, Cooper, Ferres.

France: Escare; Sigismeau, Baile, Jullien, Arnaud; Robin, Marginet; Bousquet, Boudebza, Maria, Larroyer, Perez, Simon. Substitutes: Kriouache, Springer, Boyer, Goudemand.

Referee: J Child (England)