Pom v Pom – Canberra Raiders ace John Bateman remembers Bradford Bulls roots with NRL colleagues

AS John Bateman prepares to help make rugby league history 10,000 miles away in Canberra, the NRL star admits he and his Australia-based England team-mates never forget their Bradford Bulls roots.

Graphic: Graeme Bandeira.

The rugged back-row hopes to lead Canberra Raiders’ charge into a Grand Final when they face South Sydney in Friday’s sold-out sudden-death decider.

It is due to be historic for myriad reasons, not least that it could be the first time seven English-born players take to the field in an Australian club game.

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Moreover, six of those are actually from Yorkshire; Canberra have Bradford-born back-rows Bateman and Elliott Whitehead as well as hooker Josh Hodgson, from Hull.

Former Bradford Bulls youngster John Bateman now playing for Canberra Raiders in the NRL. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Opponents Souths, of course, have the Burgess brothers – Sam, Tom and George – who all hail from Dewsbury.

Canberra loose forward Ryan Sutton is the odd man out in that he comes from Merseyside but also, for now at least, he is only on stand-by for Friday’s tussle.

As far as the Australians are concerned, this is being billed as the Battle of Britain and Pom versus Pom, but the familiarities are greater still when you consider five of the seven have those Bradford connections.

Superstar Sam Burgess rose through the ranks long before the rest, moving to Souths in a six-figure deal at the end of 2009.

But Bateman – who has been a revelation in his first season at Raiders since leaving Wigan Warriors – Whitehead and Tom Burgess all played together at Odsal for a couple of seasons in 2011 and 2012 before eventually going their separate ways.

George Burgess was in the Bulls Academy side with them, too. but headed to Souths before playing a first-team game.

But current England stars Bateman, Whitehead, Tom Burgess and George Burgess all played together at Odsal in 2011 and 2012.

Obviously, their erstwhile club has endured plenty of struggles before, during and after their departures, the financially-stricken three-time World Club champions now operating in the Championship and preparing to relocate to Dewsbury in 2020.

Some were at Odsal 12 months ago to watch Bradford beat Workington Town and earn promotion out of League One.

Bateman recalled to The Yorkshire Post: “It was the week before the Super League Grand Final. They’d finished in Australia and were over for England and I’d just played for Wigan in the semi.

“Bradford played that Sunday so we all went down. You do have conversations about that sort of stuff (playing for Bulls).

“When we’re together with England we talk about what could have been.

“We have a laugh and joke about how we should all go back when we’re coming towards the end of our careers and do another season there. It’s been fantastic to see just how far we’ve all come from where we all started. We all started at Bradford and all had our own pathways. But now we’re going to meet each other on the other side of the world in what will be one of the biggest games any of us have ever played in yet.”

Bateman, who turns 26 next week, has been immense in his debut Canberra campaign, earning rave reviews as Ricky Stuart’s side look to win a first title in a quarter-of-a-century.

With his physical, no-nonsense approach, the slight back-row has certainly packed a punch, taking on all-comers in the NRL and endearing himself to the Raiders faithful.

Bateman, who won a Grand Final with Wigan last year, said: “I just wanted to have a good pre-season, fight for a spot and go from there really.

“It has gone really well and I have loved it but it helps having a group of lads I get on so well with.

“The coaches and all the staff have been great, too, and it couldn’t have worked out any better. Friday will be massive. Every game is but what lies ahead now in our grasp is huge and we have to make sure we go out there and get it.

“It’s what you work so hard for all year; you get to this point – now you want to go and win it.”

A fractured cheekbone kept him out when they lost to Souths in May, a day when the other six broke the previous record of five Englishman in one match.

That was originally set when Penrith’s Bill Ashurst, Mike Stephenson and Dave Topliss went up against Manly’s Steve Norton and Phil Lowe in 1976, another heyday for quality English recruits in Sydney.

It was matched when Great Britain stars Ellery Hanley, Gary Schofield and Kelvin Skerrett played for Western Suburbs against Eastern Suburbs’ Martin Offiah and Joe Lydon in 1989.

Bateman’s 78th-minute try stunned favourites Melbourne Storm in Canberra’s 12-10 qualifying win and they now hope to push on to meet Storm or Sydney Roosters in the final.

On the differences with the British game, he said: “You have to be a lot more consistent here than in Super League.

“You can’t really be on one week then off the next. You have to play well week in, week out or, if you don’t, you will get burnt.

“I’m sure there’s loads more back home who could make the step up if they wanted to.

“But it suits some people and not others. If you’re a very homely person, it’s not like moving an hour down the road; different time zones, the other side of the world – you probably can’t get any further away.”

In Bateman’s case, too, his nine-year-old daughter Millie remained in England which has made things tough at times.

“She’s been over for a few weeks at a time and it’s great to see her when she’s here,” he said.

“Don’t get me wrong; I sit down at times and do miss her and think about it all. But I always remember that I’m doing it for her. Obviously, I love it here personally and want to play my best rugby but I also want to give her the best opportunities in life.

“It’s buzzing to know that she gets to get across here but for my family as well. They all came over at Easter. Often they don’t get outside of Bradford; if I’d not done this they would never have got that experience. Bradford is home for me and I’ll always come back there. But I’ve got this great opportunity here and Canberra is my home now. I’m enjoying it.”

As are his fellow countrymen on both sides of what promises to be a fascinating tie on Friday.