Recently John Bateman played his last* game for Canberra.
*Maybe he’ll come back. We hope.
Bateman has been a transformational player for the Raiders. He introduced a steel to the right edge, and his arrival coincided with the Green Machine’s defence improving to one of the best in the competition, conceding around 15 points a game across his two seasons (as compared to
a hot mess 22.5 in 2018). The Englishman also provided a critical link on movements on the right edge. We’ve outlined his importance here, but in short Bateman didn’t just provide quick feet and a strong carry, he was a critical linchpin and improviser.
We have long argued that Hudson Young should replace him on the edge next year. He’s already an exemplary defender, with a frankly stunning 90+ per cent tackling efficiency playing on the edge in 2020 (that’s about the same as John Bateman, and better than Elliott Whitehead). Prior to the finals his try-causes (2) and line-breaks conceded (3) were less than or equal to either Bateman or Elliott Whitehead (though Bateman’s 2 try causes came from only 9 regular games compared to Young’s 16). Comparing these stats is hard, given Young split minutes between the middle and the edge, but evidence of his efficacy is that while Bateman was injured he was a big part of that edge maintaining structural integrity despite to rotating cast outside him.
Young is developing in attack too. At the end of the regular season and in the finals his ball-running was a boon for the Milk, tearing up the middle with quick feet at the line and a a good gallop in a bit of space. He was particularly effective operating off Tom Starling’s shoulder, and was a critical in taking the workload off Josh Papalii and Joe Tapine. In the last round against the Warriors, in the elimination final against the Sharks, and in the semi against the Roosters he had critical line-breaks that led to tries (or almost tries) that were fundamental in the outcome of the match. His six line-breaks were second among Raiders forwards after Elliott Whitehead, and his 24 tackle breaks are behind only Papalii and Tapine in the pack.
A critic of Young’s would question whether he is capable of filling Bateman’s role offensively. This is not to say Hudson is a limited offensive weapon, but rather a conventional one in modern rugby league. He sits perfectly on the shoulder of a half, able to run straight lines at pace, and more potently, angled lines back against the grain of play. He can use quick feet in the line to beat defenders or earn fast rucks. Bateman has done these things for Canberra, with the additional advantage of being able to take early ball and his pace to jump outside a defender, create an overlap and use his ball skills to capitalise on that.
While it’s not really realistic to expect Young to become a similar level ball-player to Bateman, there is scope for him to build out more ability to operate as a link man between Williams and the outside backs. While he can’t emulate Bateman, his teammate Elliott Whitehead offers a more duplicable model, at least in approach. Whitehead doesn’t operate with elite pace, just with an excellent understanding of his role, good hands, and a great ability to read a defence.
In limited opportunities in space Young has occasionally shown glimpses that he can fill a similar role. Against the Warriors he chimed in perfectly on a sweep movement, picking up a tough pass, making the right decision to get the ball early to Croker, who found Semi Valemei and a try resulted (you can watch it here). Young’s hands were soft, and he summed up his role in the movement perfectly. It’s hardly definitive; hell it’s just one small moment. But it suggests there’s more there than is currently being utilised. While there’s no doubt he probably doesn’t have the playmaking ability of Whitehead yet, there’s nothing shown so far to say he can’t develop it.
Smarter people than me (including if most rumours are true, the coaching staff), seem to be leaning towards Corey Harawira-Naera as Bateman’s replacement. Corey underwhelmed in his short stint with the Raiders in 2020. He’d had a long period out of the game, and a range of admitted personal problems (and lack of access to proper training facilities) during that period; it was hardly an ideal situation. He barely had a moment to acclimatise, and he was forced into a role he wasn’t used to in defending the middle. Indeed when a reshuffle was caused by Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad Head Injury Assessment in the preliminary final, Harawira-Naera defended at Bateman’s spot. That performance, both on the edge and later in the middle was his best performance of the season. There’s no doubt he’ll be better placed to succeed in 2021 after a proper pre-season and a more defined role.
But on the numbers he doesn’t compare to Young. Even when fit, there are questions about Harawira-Naera’s defence on the edge (he was third in missed tackles across the league in 2019). More than once in 2020 he was made to look substandard (think this try against the Sharks). In 2020 Harawira-Naera made 12 tackles for every miss, compared to 20 for Young. In 9 games for the Raiders he has more try-causes (3) and line-breaks conceded (4) than Young had in 16 appearances in 2020.
Nor does Harawira-Naera fill the hole in attack that Bateman will leave. He’s a traditional second-rower in that regard; more ball runner than creator. Though he’s undoubtedly a skilled passer, and has a unique ability to stand in tackles an offload, there’s no overwhelming evidence so far he’d offer more than Young does now. Harawira-Naera can certainly flick an offload, and perhaps with a bit of the flair and unpredictability of Bateman, but Young provides a safer option in the short term while maintaining plenty of upside for the future.
This all may change with a proper pre-season, so I’m not precluding the possibility that Harawira-Naera will start next year as a first choice edge. But from what we’ve seen so far, there’s only one option worth pursuing. I hope Hudson can fill Batty’s massive boots.