Canberra forward John Bateman has forged a reputation for his toughness, hunger for success and a liking for the odd scrap. The remarkable circumstances surrounding his initial signing to Wigan as a 14-year-old highlight just how deep that runs.
Legendary Wigan development coach Brian Foley was in charge of the club’s junior academy and had gone to Bradford to meet with Bateman and sign him up.
Foley was on the phone to Bateman asking for directions to his home when a man on the street grabbed his mobile and tried to get away.
Foley, formerly in the military, swiftly put a move on the would-be robber, retrieved his phone and sent him on his way.
Bateman was on the other end of the call and listening to the commotion with glee. When Foley arrived at his home an awestruck Bateman said, "Where do I sign!"
"That was when I knew what I was getting myself in to," Bateman chuckled when reminded of the story by NRL.com ahead of Friday's preliminary final clash with the Rabbitohs.
"The bloke tried to grab Brian’s phone but he sorted him out. Growing up as kid I started the game because my mum wanted me to take my aggro out on someone. It is a tough game that we play. If you don’t like it tough then you should be playing another game to be honest.
John is a street-wise lad from a street-wise background who has become a street-wise player.Brian Foley
"I was only 14 at the time and I had to get out of school early to get to Wigan which was an hour away in traffic. My grandfather and my mum would finish work early and take me there every week.
"It is credit to Brian for getting me on board when he did. You look back at stuff like that and realise it made me the player I am today.
"Brian sent me a photo the other week of the blokes in that Wigan academy and 10 or more have gone on to play at a professional level and that was due to Brian being a very disciplined coach."
Foley and Bateman still chat on the phone and last week reminisced about the Wigan academy squad which also contained England internationals Ben Currie and George Williams.
Bateman eventually signed on with Bradford at the start of his senior professional career but returned to Wigan in 2014 where, after a trial, his first game was in the World Club Challenge against the Roosters.
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The Roosters towelled Wigan up 36-14 in a baptism of fire for Bateman.
"It was pretty mad. I remember that Roosters team was one of the best I have ever played against," Bateman said.
"They had Sonny Bill Williams, Minichiello, Jennings, Boyd Cordner... and what I recall from that game is that if you get caught up in the moment it can pass you by and you don’t do the things that you need to do."
Bateman would go on to make great friends and great memories at Wigan but eventually the lure of the NRL was too strong to ignore - although there was plenty of soul searching as he winged his way 17,000 kilometres across the world earlier this year.
"When I left my family that day at the airport for the first time, I sat there on the plane and I said to myself, 'I'm going to do the best I can out there so I'm not leaving my family for nothing'," Bateman said.
"A couple of times I wondered 'what am I doing here, why am I doing this, can I get off this plane?'
"But you're not normal if you don't think like that, it's human nature. But once I got here the lads welcomed me with open arms."
Bateman played the full 80 minutes in each of Canberra's first seven games this season before a clash of heads against Penrith in Wagga left him with a broken cheekbone.
With the benefit of hindsight, he admits the three-week break may have actually been a blessing in disguise.
"Around the middle of the season you start missing home a little bit more and I had a couple of months until my mum and my daughter were coming out," Bateman said.
"I got the chance to go home and freshen myself up and come back and kicked on from there."
And kick on the Englishman has, much to the delight of his old mentor Foley.
"John was tough and came from a good family background and the area he is from in Bradford is similar to the Burgess family, so he had a good pedigree," Foley said.
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"What always stood out was his physical toughness and mental attitude which he showed in the way he travelled down to Wigan. He is a street-wise lad from a street-wise background who has become a street-wise player.
"John doesn’t back away from the physicality and I like the way he has adjusted to the NRL and led the way for Canberra.
"He has taken Australia by storm with his winning mentality, which I am so proud of."
It is a tough game that we play. If you don’t like it tough then you should be playing another game to be honest.John Bateman
As Bateman prepares to lock horns with a Rabbitohs pack led by those same Burgess boys, he will use the lessons of that World Club Challenge hammering to keep things in perspective.
"It is a massive game but you can't look at it and go 'this is the biggest game I am going to play'," he said.
"There is a bigger prize at the end of it but you just have to go out there and play your game and that will get you over the line.
"It's madness, don't get me wrong, you come here and at the beginning of the year you want to do well and get to this part of the year.
"The dream is always there, you want to get to the grand final and win it and you can ask any other team, you believe in that dream, but when there's hiccups during the season you start to question yourself.
"But now we're in a position and we are all excited. We've got a young squad with not much experience in the finals but the only way you get that is play in games like this."
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