Auckland is about as far away from Bradford as you can get in every sense, but early on Saturday morning a small corner of the West Yorkshire city will be shunning a lie-in to meet up and watch one of their own fulfil a childhood dream on the other side of the world when Great Britain face Tonga. This has been a year to remember for John Bateman but even while establishing himself as one of the world’s best rugby league players, the forward has never forgotten his humble roots.
“It’s all pretty mad for a lad from Bradford,” laughs Bateman on the eve of his Great Britain debut. The 26-year-old had been tipped for the top ever since he emerged as a teenager at his hometown club eight years ago, but even by those standards this has been some rise.
Having become one of the best talents in the British game with Wigan, Bateman’s form earned him a move to the NRL with Canberra this season. “I just wanted to go there and play some games – I had no idea how I’d do,” he admits. “We’ve had a couple of weeks since the season finished and it’s just about started to sink in.”
With Bateman impressing throughout his first season in Australia, Canberra reached the Grand Final for the first time in 25 years. They ultimately fell just short of the title, losing to Sydney Roosters, but Bateman has become a sensation in the country. It is a far cry not only from his upbringing in England, but also his first impressions of life 12,000 miles away. “I won’t lie, when I first got here I thought I wanted to go home,” he reflects. “But I’ve really settled, and Canberra now feels like home.
“The benefit of playing so well this year means I now get the chance to play for Great Britain, which is something you dream of doing as a kid when you’re getting up early to watch the tour games on television.”
There will be plenty of support for Bateman back at home this time too. “They opened up my amateur club, Dudley Hill, early in the morning for the Grand Final … maybe they’ll do the same again for this,” he says. “Loads of the lads I grew up with have sent me messages this week saying they’re all tuning in. That’s nice to hear and makes me proud of where I’m from.”
Bateman’s upbringing, which saw him raised in a working-class area of Bradford, has never been far from his thinking, even after the fame and fortune Australian rugby league has now provided him with.
“It’s one thing I’ve always stood by, that no matter where I go and what I do, I always go back home,” Bateman adds. “You look at the big teams I’ve been lucky to play for like Wigan and Bradford, but it’s Dudley Hill that I give the most credit to. They’ve made me the person I am and the player I am. There’s already a get-together arranged for when I go home after the tour. They’re the people that have helped get me to where I am today.”
But before the Christmas celebrations can begin in Bradford, there is a job to do with Great Britain. Two Tests against New Zealand and a visit to Papua New Guinea follow Saturday’s match with Tonga, two years on from England’s dramatic 20-18 victory in the semi-finals of the World Cup in Auckland.
“It was a crazy day,” Bateman, who will start in the back row, recalls. “It’s one of those days you’ll never forget for lots of reasons, and hopefully Saturday is the same. They’re a big, powerful side and they’ve got a number of world-class players in there, so it’s going to be tough. But this group backs itself against any side in the world.”
With a large portion of it reaching the World Cup final two years ago, and planning to go one step further on home soil in 2021, confidence is unsurprisingly high. “I feel sorry for Wayne Bennett and the coaching staff because it’s such a good squad [with so many options],” Bateman says.
“We have expectation now rather than hope. Our aim is literally nothing else but winning four games out of four over the next month. We know we’re a great side and it’s going to be an honour to pull that Great Britain jersey on. Not just for me but for my grandparents, my mum, my daughter and everyone back in Bradford, too.”