Even when he’s not playing John Bateman is central to the Raiders story. The announcement that he’d need further surgery on his shoulder will have a profound impact on the Green Machine’s operation in 2020, as well as the careers of his teammates. Only time will tell if the Raiders premiership chances are still alive, but the fact they have coverage, and a plan, is a testament to the roster the Raiders have built. It’s the first time in a long time that they’ve had such depth.
Some injuries you can’t recover from, and if you’d asked me before the grand final last year to name four players the Raiders could never afford to be without, it would be Josh Hodgson, Jack Wighton, Josh Papalii and Bateman. Canberra Raiders’ fans know what injuries to key players looks like. Terry Campese’s 2010 knee explosion still haunts many. Ricky Stuart’s blood-curdling screams remind everyone that 1993 should’ve been another link in the chain of Raiders greatness. 1991 the Green Machine were so broken down by the grand final it’s amazing they made it through the game. Only 1990 stands a testament to winning without quality (Brad Clyde had been out since round 20 with an ACL injury). Back then, Canberra simply shifted Dean Lance back to his old position of lock, moved Nigel Gaffey into the starting squad and kept on rolling. Let’s hope this small bit of history repeats.
Sidebar: Let’s also talk about the 2012 team that won without Campo, made the semis and beat the Sharks in one of the most wonderful rugby league experiences in human history.
So far we don’t have a good idea how long Bateman will be out for. If the most recent surgery is anything to go by, the earliest he’ll be back is the run up to the finals series. This is not good. Bateman plays a two-way role for the Milk – a cornerstone of the right side defence, with the ability to both take hard carries and jump to the outside to ball play. He’s one of the best defensive back-rowers around – in 2019 the Raiders’ defence was a full ten points better per game with Bateman in the side. He was also a secondary creator that gave a clunky offence valuable variety.
The changes to the game – should they hold on from round 3 – suit his game. His dexterity at the line, ability to take hard carries inside and step outside to create, his brilliant first contact in defence, as well as his fitness, are all factors that suit him well to a faster game. He would have fit perfectly beside George Williams, and could have made the right edge a terror in attack, and a wall in defence.
Until recently, it would have been unfathomable to think the modern Canberra sides could handle an injury to such a key player. But in 2020 Joe Tapine has done a great job filling in. On the weekend he was stellar in defence, with at least one try-saving tackle, several other impressive efforts, such as pushing Josh Addo-Carr right to the sideline when he should have burnt the second-rower and run into space. It was great to see how robust the Raiders right side could be, even without Bateman available. But it came at a cost. Normally a weapon on the edge capable of tearing a hole in a defence by running around or through them, Tapine took only six carries (for 65m) on the weekend, and only five (for 53m) in round two (although he did take 12 in round 1). It’s impossible to tell from my couch, but the effort that Tapine has to put into defence in order to give a decent facsimile of the Englishmen’s role is restricting his offence. It’s not impossible for him to improve his offensive output, but it does underscore the difficulty of filling the role that Bateman has played for the Raiders.
The Milk even have options. Hudson Young had a crack at it in 2019 and did an admirable job. He is much more similar to Bateman than Tapine. In fact his quick feet at the line, his ability to muscle up to bigger players and keep pace with small players are almost Bateman-lite. It would be his position right now if not for his suspension at the end of last year.
The Raiders will have to make a decision over the coming months about whether Tapine or Young is best placed to hold this position. It seems in the short-term it’s Tapine, and there’s no doubt if the Raiders continue their current form that it’ll be his for as long as Bateman is out. But if the Raiders or their right edge defence should falter, the Raiders will have the ability to put Young in there also.
It is also heartening to think that if Bateman’s injury proves more damaging, or his career moves in a direction away from Canberra, the Raiders have cover, and maybe even have to make a difficult decision about whether Tapine or Young is more suited to the edge role in the longer term. Both Tapine and Young have youth on the side. Tapine is 26 and tied to the Green Machine through 2023. Young is 21, and his deal is up at 2021, but it seems Canberra would be keen to keep him around. Both options have merit, but given Young’s relative development he may be favoured in the longer term, should it come to that.
As for Bateman we can only hope he gets healthy and gets back on the field soon. He’s said he hasn’t played his last game for the Milk, which either means he’s hoping to be back this season, or there’s news to come on the contract front. A third surgery doesn’t help his personal situation. It presents him as a bigger health risk than he was six months ago, and reduces his leverage in his current negotiations. I hope Bateman can finalise his situation soon, if only for his (and his family’s) benefit.
For now though, the Raiders will simply have to keep on the same path they are currently on. This is a set-back, there’s no way two-ways about that. Canberra are much better with John in the side than on the bench. But at least they’ve shown they have coverage should his injury ruin his season, and a plan if he should leave. It’s a terrible situation, but the Green Machine are prepared to handle it. For the first time since I can remember, they are prepared for the worst.
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