It’s hard not to feel a mix of emotions at the news that John Bateman is likely to be signing with the Wests Tigers. By mix of course I mean that unique combination and sadness and irrational anger. A confusion as to why these feelings are so strong when it’s a game, someone else’s life and generally shouldn’t matter so much. But it does, and so it hurts to see that he’ll be doing for another team what he should be doing for the Raiders.
Just two years after he left Canberra because of his proclamation of homesickness, he’s back, this time in Tiger form. Of course it probably wasn’t just homesickness that saw him depart. It was always rumoured to be a game of contract negotiation chicken that went wrong for all involved. John wanted more, the Raiders didn’t give it to him. All of a sudden he was heading back to England and the Raiders were down a transformative backrower.
And now he’s back, from outer space. Now the Tigers potentially get a transformative backrower to pair with the other world-class backrower (Isiah Papali’i) they signed this offseason, and arguably the best hooker in the competition (non-Harry Grant edition). Frustratingly Bateman is a perfect fit for the Tigers, filling a significant gap in their line up, as well as putting a bit of strength in their spirit, something that has been obviously lacking for years. It’s all wrapped in an annoyingly perfect package. The only comforting thought is that if there’s a team that could mess this up, it’s the Tigers.
It’s equally frustrating because the Raiders could really use John Bateman, or at least, what John Bateman was when he came to Canberra. For us he turned a previously porous edge defence into a wall. He provided a ‘point-of-difference’ in attack that the Milk hadn’t had for ages. He could turn nothing into something and annoy the opposition in doing so. His versaility was astounding. He was as likely to step Kalyn Ponga as he was to find a middle forward to push with a hand perpetually outstretched on carries, like a divining rod searching for a brawl.
Now Canberra are with a clear gap, or at least risk of a gap, at right edge, the exact spot Bateman had made his own with the Milk. Elliott Whitehead is getting older, the Raiders may need Corey Harawira-Naera to cover the middle. He’d provide Jamal Fogarty with a chaotic running partner I think the more structured half would thrive alongside. He’d make sure Matt Timoko gets plenty of early ball. And worse, he’d be the grit in a side that has sometimes needed stones in recent years. Bringing John Bateman into this side would be a square peg in a square hole.
Of course, these are rose coloured glasses (or green with envy). We are catastrophising the situation. Bateman initially struggled in his return to England. Even with the Raiders he spent a lot of time on the injury list, and that hasn’t changed in the Super League. He’s as liable to get homesick again, or seek to get a new deal out of the Tigers or elsewhere as soon as the wind changes (or, in the week of the first grand final that side has been in for decades). That’s the kind of guy he is, and it’s only because he’s such a tremendous player that he can get away with it. The Kyrie Irving of rugby league, minus the anti-semitism. This could be the Tigers yet again spending big for a name that can’t deliver the change they need.
Still, I can’t help but be frustrated as to how this occurred. The best version of Bateman should be a Raider. That’s on him for not living up to the beautiful lies he told us about delivering a premiership for Canberra. That’s on Sticky and Don for not being able to get a deal done or get him focused when he made a kerfuffle or acted up. That’s on the Tigers for being the team willing to give Wigan money on a hope and a prayer.
And it’s on me and you for caring. One day we’ll learn that this is an entertainment business and that our normative desires about loyalty and honesty are bought with the same tickets that we buy in the hope of winning a jackpot.
In the meantime I’ll just be sad and angry.
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