EXCLUSIVE: An interview with James Batchelor

James Batchelor is a young man with a big future. Having signed a five year deal with Wakefield Trinity at the start of 2017, coach Chris Chester has talked up the potential of the 19 year old second rower. Speaking in the aftermath of the second rower’s debut in 2016 against Warrington Wolves, he stated that “he’s going to be a hell of a player. He didn’t look out of place; he’s an exciting young kid, very good defensively and played very, very well.” When Get ’em Onside met the man himself this week, Batchelor recalled that week with a smile on his face.

“It was really weird actually. I’d just got back from Australia [England under 19s tour] and they said that I’d probably come on in the second half, but Jason Walton’s boot broke. Chessie [coach Chris Chester] was on the bench and just got him off and put me on. I wasn’t really nervous because I’d only been on the bench for ten minutes but then my boot broke!” However, understandably keen to stay on the pitch to get into the game, he didn’t let that malfunction stop him. “The physio came on and put loads of tape round my boot and I played the rest of the game.” 

Perhaps one of the reasons Batchelor wasn’t fazed by making his debut was that he was fresh off the plane after an England tour to Australia with one of the junior teams. Speaking of the experience that offered him, he explained that “it was an eye opener. You get people from different clubs going away and it’s the first real chance for that to happen. The environment is completely different, you know what’s expected of you and it was very professional,” something which understandably will have eased his transition into the first team fold for last season’s Super League surprise package. “The coaches and staff were all brilliant and looked after us so well. A few of them had links to the senior national team so they brought stuff from that setup.” It is clear from speaking to Batchelor that he feels the international setup for the youngsters has benefitted his development while also providing him with the potential pathway to further international opportunities, something which the newly reformed England Knights squad boosts also for young English players. “I don’t think that’s just ticking boxes – there is the genuine potential there to be great.”

The fact that he was in the under 19s national setup indicates the potential the youngster possesses and that potential led Wakefield Trinity to offer the former Oulton and Crigglestone junior a long term deal – but the length of the deal was a shock to Batchelor. “When they wanted to speak to me I thought it would probably be an extra year on my old contract but they came back straight away and said five years and that they wanted to get that done. The club said that they see me as a big part of the future, want to build things with me and to help me improve. It’s even bigger with it being at Wakefield because they’re the club I’ve always supported, my local team, it’s still feels pretty surreal!” It’s clear that Batchelor is a very grounded young man who is keen to learn, something which Wakefield’s former head of rugby alluded to, articulating that “his biggest strength is his coach-ability – he’s like a sponge. He listens intently, practises intensely and wants to improve at every training session and video analysis. That carries over onto the playing field.”

A graduate of the Wakefield College rugby set up led by now York City Knights coach James Ford and former Trinity forward Mark Applegarth, he featured alongside his brother Joe, a fellow second rower at Ford’s Knights team. “He’s doing really well this year. I always thought he was the better player out of the two of us so I’m quite surprised I ended up in Super League before him.” He did, however, point out one area that he feels he has the edge over his older brother. When questioned whether he had ever scored tries similar to Joe’s long rangers against Bradford Bulls and Keighley this season, James confirmed that he had, adding that “I’m probably faster than him I reckon!” Recently, his brother has been linked with a Super League move with St Helens mentioned as a possible destination and James confirmed that he would be chuffed to see his brother sign a top tier deal. “I’d probably just try to bang him!” he laughed. “I’ve never played against him apart from a Dads v Lads game where I joined the other team. He plays on the left and I play on the right so it’d be a proper head to head – I just don’t know how our mum would cope with the banter before and after the game!”

With a look back at this season at Belle Vue, Batchelor agrees that the team were unlucky to have recorded five straight losses. “We spoke after all the games [the five consecutive defeats] and said that although we’re not happy with the performance, we’re only losing by one or two points. If we think we aren’t playing at our best and we’re only one or two points off then there’s no reason to panic. We were losing tight games against teams that people are expecting to challenge for silverware.” Indeed, the five games in question were against Wigan, Warrington, Castleford, Hull FC and Leeds – five of the top six in the competition and, as for the other, they were the St Helens team Wakefield broke their bad run against on Sunday. In turn, Trinity have played each of the six teams above them in the Super League ladder in a row and have a record of five wins and five losses from their first ten games of the season with a more favourable run coming up now, one where Batchelor and the club hope they can push higher up the table.

This interview came less than 24 hours after Trinity’s superb 24-20 win over league leaders St Helens, he confirmed that there was a sense of relief around the team. “You could see how much it meant to everyone in the changing room after the game, if anybody who saw the game saw when Bill Tupou picked the ball up on the hooter… it showed how much it meant to the group of players as well as the fans.” That instance from the former NRL star showed that even the non-locals in the team are buying into what Chris Chester and co. are trying to do at the club and Batchelor paid testament to the attitudes of the foreign players in the squad. “People like Dave (Fifita), Pauli (Pauli) and Justin Horo… those people are as passionate about the club as anybody. The lads are unbelievable and they make you feel welcome, the fans are so passionate and make themselves heard as well.”

He suggested that a reason behind the fans’ presence being so important to the club is down to the hardship it has suffered over the years. “The last ten or fifteen years hasn’t been great but the fans were always there – they want to enjoy it and help the team. The passion for the club goes right through from the top to the bottom.” Agreeing that the club don’t have one of the biggest budgets in the competition, Batchelor explained that he believes the team spirit at the club is one of its’ greatest assets, suggesting that this season is one of the first where the club haven’t seen key players depart. “This is the first year as a Wakefield fan where I can remember keeping the squad together and not losing key players,” agreeing with Get ’em Onside’s suggestion that the off season recruitment was building on a strong squad rather than re-building a decimated one.

From speaking to Batchelor, it is clear that he is a grounded individual who is keen to learn the game and, while he trains with players of vast experience – both of the NRL and the lower UK leagues such as Liam Finn – he will have the benefits of their wisdom to guide him through the harder patches he will no doubt endure as a player. However, the fact that he was offered a five year deal before the start of 2017 indicates that the club wholeheartedly believes that the 19 year old has huge potential. He is hoping that 2018 will be the year he begins to establish himself in the matchday squad after his 2017 was curtailed by injury.

It is also clear that Wakefield are aiming high this season. When asked whether there is a pressure on the club this year following an impressive campaign last time out, Batchelor explained that “we put lots of pressure on ourselves because we believe we are a good side, we believe we can be a top four side.” He, like the team, is aiming high and, as a fan of the team, is acutely aware that he is lucky to be playing for a club in a good place.

If Batchelor continues his impressive rise, he may well be one of the players who can help establish the club in the upper echelons of Super League in the coming years.

 

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