John Bateman, the boy from Bradford made good, is a star. There is no doubt about it.
However, his current shoulder injury is putting a hold on his star rising any further at the moment.
Right now he is straddling a very fine line between being a great player who is just looking to maximise his earning potential, and being a destabilising presence at his club.
The English international has a really good case for wanting to get more money. He is determined to be able to look after himself and his daughter in the long term.
However, there are a number of other factors that are also at play that he needs to take into account as he navigates his path. If he doesn’t he may actually harm his value.
Fortunately, the relationships between Bateman, the Canberra Raiders, the coaching staff and other players, as well as the fans, are still in very good shape.
Pretty much everyone – including the man himself – wants him to stay with the Raiders.
The most important priority for Bateman is looking after the future of his family. He – as any person selling their labour does – undeniably has the right to ask for more money for his services when he believes they are worth more. And he is frank about the reason for that.
“When I’m 45 and struggling to stand up, or trying to put my daughter through university, no one is going to ring me and say ‘you know that extra few hundred grand you were hoping to get? We’ve got it for you now’,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald in May.
“She’s my girl. That’s who I wake up every day for. That’s the reason I go to work, to give her the best life possible. I’ll stand by that, no matter what people call me. She’s my number one. I’ve travelled all the way to the other side of the world and miss her growing up, so I want to make sure my sacrifice is worth it.”
Fair enough too. Bateman became a father at the age of just 15. However, while it would have been easy for a kid that age to abdicate responsibility for raising a child, Bateman manned up and dedicated himself to being a great father to Millie and looking after her.
He hasn’t wavered from that either. That is honourable and admirable. His need to make sure she is well cared for has driven him to become the player he is. That he wants to maximise his earnings while he can is totally understandable and fair.
No one is arguing with that. Not the club. Not the fans.
However, while that is a very understandable primary consideration, it cannot be the only consideration for Bateman.
Bateman does have to consider the position of the club and his teammates.
For a starter, the Raiders paid a very large transfer fee to secure Bateman’s services just over a year ago. They are entitled to feel a bit miffed that he is agitating so hard for more money so soon. While his need to secure his family’s future is valid, he is on very good money by anyone’s standards.
Bateman also has to consider the position of his coach.
Bateman was born on Thursday, 30 September 1993, just four days after Ricky Stuart went out to the middle of the Sydney Football Stadium on crutches at halftime in the Broncos-Dragons grand final to be given his Dally M Medal for being clearly the year’s best player.
He – and most Raiders fans – knew that his broken ankle was the only reason his side wasn’t playing there that day.
Last season I stood on the sideline at GIO Stadium, just metres from where Stuart broke his ankle just two games out from the 1993 finals, and told Bateman just how good a player his coach had been and just how much the club means to him.
Stuart has been all about building a team with great spirit since the prodigal son returned in 2014. He has managed to do that and he doesn’t want it to be destroyed. But, just like the supporters, Stuart loves Bateman and wants him to stay.
Stuart is devoted to the Raiders. The club means the world to him. However, just like Bateman, his family means more.
Stuart and CEO Don Furner Junior totally understand Bateman’s want to maximise his earnings while he can. And they’d love to be able to give him what he wants.
But it just isn’t that simple.
Firstly, the Raiders aren’t loaded with third parties lining up to sponsor players who are rarely sighted on free-to-air television. The Raiders must manage their team within the limitations of the salary cap.
The realities of cap management are that the biggest money has to go to the playmakers. The Raiders rightly have invested heavily in the services of Josh Hodgson, Josh Papalii and Jack Wighton. On arrival in 2019 Bateman was immediately on the tier below them. When the hefty transfer fee was included he was right up there in what he cost the Raiders.
The team is then loaded with players who are not cheap: Jarrod Croker, Nick Cotric, Joe Tapine, George Williams and Elliott Whitehead deserve the good money they get. As the likes of Corey Horsburgh, Emre Guler and Bailey Simonsson continue to improve, there needs to be room to keep them too.
Bateman also needs to factor in that rugby league is a team sport and he must always be thinking about his teammates.
The darkest day for the Raiders as a club came on August 4, 2013 when the Melbourne Storm flogged them 68-4 on their own home ground, the Green Machine’s biggest ever defeat.
I was doing the sideline for the ABC that day and, horribly, the Raiders had to stay on the field post-game for a presentation. As a team they were demoralised. All 17 players were collapsed on the ground wishing they could be anywhere else. Among them were Jack Wighton, Jarrod Croker and Josh Papalii. They fully felt the burning humiliation of that moment.
You have to ask yourself how those three felt during grand final week 2019 – when the club they had worked so hard to pull from that pit to the precipice of possible glory – when the story came out that John Bateman had chosen that moment to agitate in the press for a contract upgrade.
Similarly, how must that have made Josh Hodgson, Elliott Whitehead, Sia Soliola, Jordan Rapana and Joe Tapine feel, who had also been working for seasons to get their club to that point?
Bateman also needs to consider how his actions are being viewed by the other clubs and coaches.
One thing is for certain: Craig Bellamy, Trent Robinson, Des Hasler and Wayne Bennett saw what happened during the 2019 grand final week.
While there is no question that the stench of a player manager surrounded that particular incident, Bateman is not the sort of bloke to hide behind an excuse. What would potential coaches think about a player who would choose that moment to raise the issue? It is unlikely to make him more appealing.
Even with the uncertainty over his shoulder right now, he may get offers of around $800,000 but it will most likely be from clubs who aren’t that competitive right now: the Titans, the Bulldogs and the Dragons. These are clubs who will be hoping that he can get them back into contention. And he might, too. But the chances are that, in chasing bigger dollars, he may trade off the chance of NRL glory.
Is the money really all he wants? I didn’t see anyone at the Raiders take the grand final loss harder than Bateman. He was clearly gutted. He wants to win. He needs to win.
So when it comes right down to it, everyone wants Bateman to stay in Canberra. That includes the player himself. He wants to stay with Whitehead, Hodgson, Ryan Sutton and George Williams.
He just wants a bigger contract.
Bateman is an 80-minute player and he gives the opposition no peace or respite whether in attack or defence. He is a 100 per cent competitor and he won’t back down, no matter who shapes up. He won’t be intimidated and can’t be dominated. At training he is dedicated, committed and respected.
The reality is that the lad from Bradford must make a successful comeback from his shoulder injury if the current stalemate is to be broken. While Bateman is a special talent, the Raiders are still haunted by the Terry Campese long-term contract.
And Bateman needs to meet them in the middle, because while looking after your family’s future is the paramount consideration, it can’t be the only one.