Lockdown life doesn’t seem so tough to returning Wigan hero John Bateman after spending seven months in the NRL’s unforgiving playing bubble.
The England international – who has rejoined the Warriors after standing toe-to-toe with Australia’s best at Canberra – spent over half of last year restricted to contact with his Raiders team-mates and his girlfriend.
So strict were the rules, that after a mid-season shoulder operation that saw him stay overnight at hospital, Bateman wrongly presumed he was temporarily outside the bubble and went to a cafe. When a supporter took a picture of him and sent it to the club, Bateman had to quarantine for two weeks, was handed a A$10,000 (£5,600) suspended fine and forced to front the NRL Integrity Unit.
It means that being back home with his family in Bradford and closer to 11-year-old daughter Millie has superseded the latest restrictions in this country. Bateman explained: “It was pretty full on in Australia. You were stuck by yourself for a long time, and because I was injured for a lot of the season, it was a long year.
“They had to do it to get the game up and running there but it was tough. There was 52 people in our bubble with players, staff and a couple of admin people, and even the training ground was split up into areas that people could and couldn’t go. Whoever you lived with at home had to be screened every week, and if you lived with somebody who worked in a hospital one of you had to move out of the house, so a couple of the boys had to move in with each other.
“Outside of that, you were allowed to go to the supermarket or if you needed to the doctors or hospital, and that was it. Even if you went to hospital they had to check if there’d been any positive cases there – one of the lads had a baby and was stopped going to a couple of the scans. It took him two or three weeks to get permission to be at the birth.
“People say we were doing what we love and don’t get me wrong we were. But it was tough, the players didn’t get much say in it and everyone in the league had a 50 percent wage cut on the second half of the year’s salary. There was no testing – if you had any sort of symptoms you had to ring the doctor and then stay away until you got a test.
“My family were supposed to be coming over in March and when the international travel ban kicked in, that took its toll on me – I knew I wanted to come back. Lockdown is a lot different when I’m at home with my family, I’ve enjoyed being at home again.”
The cafe incident was a measure of Bateman’s standing Down Under after a 2019 season that saw him voted the best second rower in the competition. From his well-told story as a schoolboy dad to a combative on-field style prominent from the moment he feigned throwing a ball at an opponent on his NRL debut, the Australian media took to Bateman from the start.
What that also meant was his long-term future was last year the subject of back page headlines only a Premier League star would command in England when it emerged he could leave Canberra. He said: “It got blown out of context massively for what it should have been and what it worked out to be.
“It got reported that I’d asked for four releases and I can still remember the day. I was stood doing rehab in the gym with one of the conditioners Ryan Clayton, and a Fox Sports notification popped up on my phone saying ‘Breaking, John Bateman asks for four releases’.
“I was stood there laughing and just then Ricky (Stuart, Canberra coach) walked over and I showed it him and it went from there. Looking back now I laugh, and to be fair I was laughing at the time. All of a sudden there was ex players coming out saying ‘he’s being greedy’ and one week there was a story every single day. It started to annoy my missus a bit, and my mum, who has the pop-ups as well. She rang me and was a bit upset about what they were saying. I told them not to worry about it and it was part and parcel of what it’s like in rugby league over there.
“I released three or four statements myself and I always told the truth, I had nothing to hide. I’ve been as straight up as I can about everything that happened, but especially over there people need to write stories.
“It’s full on over there but I don’t care what people say, who doesn’t like attention? People like to be liked and known in sport. The first year I went over I did a few TV shows and people seemed to like my character, and me having a laugh and a joke. Then suddenly people think they know you and I didn’t mind that, but I do want to have a private life. I understand people need to write stories. It was no bother really and I’ve always said if anyone wants to write a story then just ring me up.”
Now Bateman is focused on a new start at Wigan, where he spent five successful seasons before heading for Canberra. He has been handed the club’s iconic no.13 jersey, worn by only Sean O’Loughlin and Andy Farrell in the 25 years of Super League.
And having treasured one of Farrell’s shirts given to him when he spent a year with the Warriors’ as a teenager, he is under no illusions about the weight that carries. Bateman added: “When I first went to Wigan’s scholarship at under-13s I got given Andy Farrell’s number 13 shirt and it was absolutely massive for me. I kept it in my cupboard and drawers for ages and I used to grow up thinking I wanted to try and fit into it – it got to the point where I never thought I would.
“Then going back to Wigan and signing at 19 to play alongside Lockers for as long as I did – for me he goes down as the best player I’ve played with for sure. With the people that have worn it before it’s a great honour for me and I’m looking forward to pulling it on.
“I haven’t got my head round it because I haven’t started training yet and got all my gear with the number on. Once I get that and start walking around in it every day it’ll be crazy and surreal. But I’m looking forward to it, I feel like a little kid at Christmas to be honest. When the club brought my first shirt with the name and number printed on it and Rads (rugby director Kris Radlinski) was stood there, it was a pretty good moment.”