Buying Time

BY DAN

While the Raiders have been on the field frankly showing off, off the field the cat-and-mouse game around John Bateman’s signature has continued. While Canberra surprisingly seemed resigned to losing the star back-rower, their on-field performance, and that of their rivals, has bought them more time to perhaps keep him around. Whether it will play out in Canberra’s favour is yet to be seen.

Bateman in action last year

Bateman and the Raiders are in this position because around 200k sits between them and resolution. It’s no small amount, and even a well managed cap for a successful team will struggle to find cash like that on a whim (unless Sombreros or Clydesdales are involved). The Green Machine had Bateman’s money last year, it was rejected, and that money went elsewhere – presumably in bringing back Jordan Rapana and upgrading Jack Wighton and Jarrod Croker). There’s simply less money now.

The Raiders are still working to bridge the gap. While I was sceptical about JJ Collins, Luke Bateman and Jack Murchie offering much in the way of loose change that could be redirected to Bateman, I’ve seen suggestions that they were all on more than the minimum. This is important because it means they can be replaced with a minimum wage player, and the excess be redirected. Jordan Rapana is off contract at the end of the year, as are Michael Oldfield, Sia Soliola and Nic Cotric. The expectation is that upgrading Cotric will eat some space, but Oldfield and Rapana could provide some further money to keep Bateman around. Last I saw, even Soliola doesn’t know what’s happening with his deal.

It was interesting to see Sticky mention last week the idea that the Milk were resigned to losing Bateman. The noted options for him right now – the Dragons and the Bulldogs – are basket cases. The Dragons are busy struggling with a high-paid roster, a coach living on borrowed time and another waiting in the wings who the NRL is inexplicably willing to let back in. The Dogs are also trying to push their coach out the door, and have become the new source of the ‘Raider Raise’. They’ll be used by more players than John Bateman to get more money where they are. It’s kind of a paradox: you have to be good to get better.

These options aren’t exactly attractive for Bateman, and perhaps that was something the Raiders are banking on right now. They can stare back at John’s demand, and use the lack of options to buy time. This may be by finding more money by letting players go. There could be reworked contracts in the future. They could show John the professional satsifaction is worth a little less money. Or I may just be putting a positive spin on it.

Update: Reader Geoff Cooke said James Hooper said on NRL360 that Bateman had contacted Wigan about a possible return. To me this just shows how unimpressed he is with the Dragons and Bulldogs options, rather than showing he’ll leave Canberra. That actually makes me feel like Bateman wants to eke money out of Canberra rather than leave. The fact that the Wigan deal is 700k is just more evidence of the Raiders have the leverage, and the two parties are getting closer.

Their case was helped by the Raiders beating Melbourne. For the longest time the biggest reason the Milk had to keep Bateman was because he had such a profound impact on their defence. Last year they averaged 23 points conceded without him, and 14 with him. They went 0-4 without him last year. A loss and/or bad defensive performance may have put the Raiders in the ‘desperate’ position, demonstrating that they can’t win big games without him. Instead, they were able to keep a cool head for another week. This year the Raiders are now 3-0 without Bateman, conceding just six points each week. That was understandable against the Warriors and the Titans, but the scalp of the Storm makes that look a bit different.

We are not for a second suggesting that the Raiders think they’re better off without Bateman, because they are not. Rather, the Green Machine turning in some good performances reduces Bateman’s leverage just that little bit, and buys the Raiders just a bit more time. Suddenly Sticky’s words that the Raiders would let him go seem that little bit more real, if not actually so.

This sort of interpretation is a dangerous game though. While I am tempted to think (hope?) Bateman would see the relative excellence of the Raiders compared to his options and be tempted to stay, it could just as easily put Bateman’s mind at rest that the team that sacrificed so much to bring him over will be ‘fine’ without him. He has his own set of financial motivations which cannot for a second be questioned, and it’s hard to know how much the Milk will ever be able to meet them. It could simply just be that the distance between the two parties remains too much.

But the Raiders still have time on their side. If they continue to perform, and Bateman’s options continue to display undesirable characteristics like instability and incompetence, it buys them precious time to organise their roster to keep him. There’s still a long way to go.

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