This article originally appeared in issue 399 of Rugby League World magazine. Issue 400 is currently in production and will be on sale from July 11. Click here to find out more about the magazine and to browse back issues click this link…
John Bateman grew up during an era when boyhood club Bradford Bulls were regularly stepping out at venues like Old Trafford and Wembley. Now, as a player, he harbours those same ambitions – but in the cherry and white of Wigan rather than the red, amber and black of the Bulls.
Bateman has enjoyed a scintillating start to life at the Warriors, emerging as the kind of talent that his early days at Bradford promised. Having made his Bulls debut as a 17-year-old against Catalans back in 2011, he was quickly earmarked as one of the country’s brightest young talents.
Now he is establishing himself at last year’s double-winning club, standing combatively toe-to-toe with some of Super League’s best forwards, not least Leeds pack leader Jamie Peacock in Wigan’s clashes with the Rhinos to date this year.
“I’d say the move has developed me as a person; it’s a lot easier to do things when you’re in a place that you know and people that you’re familiar with. All my friends go out quite a bit because they don’t have to worry about things and it was important to get myself away from that environment.”
“Just looking at the league table and seeing your side up in the top four is an absolutely mad thought to me, because I’ve only played in Bradford sides that have struggled over the last few years,” Bateman said.
“We never reached those occasions with the Bulls when I was there, but seeing Bradford doing it when I was younger as a lifelong fan makes you wish it will be you one day. The thought of running out at a final with Wigan – either this year or in years to come – is a mouthwatering opportunity and a goal I’m really keen to achieve.
“People are talking about how St Helens started, how Leeds are going and now how good Castleford are playing. We’re just going under the radar and you can’t afford to forget about us. We’re proving that we’re the real deal and we’re going to be up there for the rest of the year. If we turn up and play to our potential then it’s going to take a very, very strong side to beat us.”
The switch across the Pennines came as a real bolt out of the blue last November for Bulls fans, and Bateman admits it was a difficult decision to make – not least because it meant moving away from his friends and family at such a young age, including his young daughter, Millie. Bateman says the move was tough to get his head around at first, but believes the experience has made him more of a man off the field, as well as on it.
“At first it was a bit difficult leaving all my friends, family – and in particular my little girl – behind,” he said. “It’s just one of those things though, the more you think about it and worry about things, the worse it will get.
“Now I’m around him and training with him (O’Loughlin) I’m learning so much stuff from him about the game. I look up to him – I always have since I was a young kid and he burst through.”
“Once I got up and actually did it things became a little bit easier; sometimes you tend to forget that it is only an hour away, after all. I can always nip back home, and I’ve started to get used to it.
“I’d say the move has developed me as a person; it’s a lot easier to do things when you’re in a place that you know and people that you’re familiar with. All my friends go out quite a bit because they don’t have to worry about things and it was important to get myself away from that environment. It’s great going back and seeing them now and again but it’s also good being able to chill out and relax on my own over in Wigan.
“It was really difficult to leave the Bulls; I’ve made some good friends there that will probably be friends for the rest of my life. Getting up and leaving my hometown club – the club that I’ve always wanted to play for since I was a kid – was hard, but it was just one of those things that had to be done for the good of my career, as well as for the good of the Bulls.”
Parallels have been drawn between Bateman and another of Bradford’s young stars that has departed for pastures new in recent months – Catalan’s Elliott Whitehead. Bateman admits it was difficult being thrust into the spotlight at Bradford and being modelled as a key player at the age of just 17, and although he asserted Whitehead left the Bulls for different reasons, he says leaving the comfort zone of Bradford has been a great move for both men.
“Elliott left left for different reasons than what I left for. Seeing him now you can see he’s improved massively as a player though, and the one thing we have in common is that we’ve got away from Bradford and moved away from the area.
“We’re both Bradford lads and having both grown up in the city you get into a comfort zone, and getting up and leaving has done us both the world of good I think.
“Me and Elliott were starting back rowers at Bradford when I was 17 and he was 21, and it always helps having someone to look up to. It’s just general stuff like being around senior players and seeing how they conduct themselves and how they go about things.
“I’d agree with Elliott in that it puts a big burden on your shoulders to be considered a key and senior player so early in your career. To play with people like Liam Farrell and Sean O’Loughlin has brought my game on massively.”
Bateman was quick to cite O’Loughlin – as well as Wigan great Andy Farrell – as a major influence on his career, and insists it is a dream come true to be playing alongside the Wigan skipper in a winning side. But could Bateman follow that illustrious duo into the England side later this year?
“Now I’m around him and training with him (O’Loughlin) I’m learning so much stuff from him about the game. I look up to him – I always have since I was a young kid and he burst through; Lockers and Andy Farrell are the two real inspirations for me – and it’s class to look at Lockers day in, day out and see how he works.
“Most of all, he’s a top class bloke as well. You can talk to him about anything; you get some players who don’t really do that but Lockers is just a generally brilliant bloke, and it’s a pleasure to work alongside him.”
Asked about possible international recognition, Bateman added: “It was said about me last year and I picked up an injury whilst I was at Bradford, and I think that sort of knocked me out of the shop window when it came to England reckoning.
“Just looking at the league table and seeing your side up in the top four is an absolutely mad thought to me, because I’ve only played in Bradford sides that have struggled over the last few years.”
“I just want to play rugby and enjoy myself – which I have been doing at the moment. If I carry on playing well for Wigan and I get the call then that will be great, but my first priority is winning things with Wigan. I’ll take an England call with both hands, but I’m just trying to concentrate on helping Wigan.”
If he continues his Wigan career in the outstanding fashion that he has started it, few would bet against Bateman donning a red and white shirt of a different kind come the Four Nations this autumn.