PAYING Bradford Bulls £70,000 for 20-year-old back-row John Bateman looked a steal for Wigan Warriors even at the time.
Granted, the rugged forward was still relatively inexperienced, a rough diamond, but his potential was obvious; people in the know not only envisaged him as a future Bulls captain, but as a leader of his country, too.
I can’t say what it’s going to be like to live over there, but I will go out and give it my all. I’ve a good group of people and mates around me over there and I am really looking forward to it. It’s another challenge.John Bateman
Fast forward five years and though Bateman has not yet succeeded Sean O’Loughlin as England captain that fee looks like a real pittance given the garlanded player into which he has developed.
The Yorkshireman will play his last game for Wigan on Saturday when he hopes to guide them to a Grand Final victory over Warrington Wolves, who they also beat at the 2016 showpiece.
Then, after battling it out against New Zealand with England, Bateman will head to Australia to take up a three-year deal with Canberra Raiders reuniting with his fellow Bradfordian – and another one who flew the Odsal nest – Elliott Whitehead.
He will do so with his reputation already earned as one of the world’s finest forwards even though he was beaten to the Man of Steel award last night by St Helens’ Ben Barba.
With his slender frame and trademark rolled down socks, it is hard to imagine how he causes so much damage to opponents, but Bateman has always punched above his weight. Defensively, few hit as hard as the 25-year-old while his leg drive proves a constant thorn when carrying, often leaving players in his wake as he tirelessly clears Wigan’s lines.
In many ways he is the epitome of what the Man of Steel should represent although he knows he, and all his Wigan colleagues will have to raise their game again to earn the perfect send-off.
Fourth-placed Warrington caused an upset by winning at League Leaders’ Shield victors St Helens in Thursday’s semi-final, the night before Wigan dispatched Castleford Tigers 14-0 to set-up the Old Trafford meeting.
“They played really well against Saints and beat us in a big game as well in the Challenge Cup semi-final this year,” Bateman recalled to The Yorkshire Post.
“You remember the games such as that, when it meant the most. They really turned up and gave it to us, they really did.
“I know a few of their lads and I’ll be giving them a few texts this week to see what they’re up to. We’ll have some banter, but we’ll really need to be on our game.”
This said, Wigan look imperious at the moment having strung together nine successive wins.
It is not only their adopted son Bateman departing; head coach Shaun Wane ends a 30-year association with the club on Saturday while Catalans Dragons-bound Sam Tomkins leaves for a second time and prop Ryan Sutton is heading to Canberra.
Wigan’s defence was immense when defeating Castleford at DW Stadium. Bateman acknowledged: “We have been playing well. We didn’t lose in the Super 8s and I think then Friday was probably the best we’ve played.
“Defensively we were absolutely fantastic. To play alongside each other and know that we feel strong and trust each other is one of those feelings you don’t get very often. But we had it Friday and it was amazing.”
If one person does hit harder than Bateman it is his team-mate Tommy Leuluai, the veteran Kiwi half-back who put in some punishing shots against Castleford next to him and centre Oliver Gildart on a formidable right edge.
“Every time I looked out of the corner of my eye I just saw this little rocket come flying out into someone,” recalled Bateman.
“It’s amazing for Tommy to have played 250 games for us while Gilly’s gone from playing on the left side to the right this year and he’s got it all. He’s in the England Knights squad, but I think he’s been knocking on the first-team door for England as well as he’s been absolutely amazing.
“Then we have Dom Manfredi on the wing alongside him and if you give him another full year he’ll be knocking on that England door for a debut as well.”
The young Bateman embraced leaving his Bradford home for Wigan. Will the switch to Canberra be as seamless? He said: “I’m hoping so but I won’t lie, it’s not just an hour’s drive down the M62 anymore is it? It’s a 24-hour flight so I can’t just turn up at my mum’s when I want.
“I can’t say what it’s going to be like to live over there, but I will go out and give it my all. I’ve a good group of people and mates around me over there and I am really looking forward to it. It’s another challenge. When I came to Wigan they took me in and really looked after me. I’d probably call this my home now. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Yorkshire lad and will always be a Yorkshire lad.
“But what Wigan have done for me is absolutely fantastic. One year I do want to finish here and play at the DW Stadium again.”