Rugby Union: The ageless art of Allan Bateman

In a season dogged by injury, the craftsman centre has made a timely return to fitness for a revitalised Wales side determined to leave its mark on the Five Nations.
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The Independent Online
IT WAS somehow typical of Allan Bateman that he should have timed his return to fully fledged Red Dragonhood to coincide with all the holding of back pages and locking up of daughters that accompanied Will Carling's latest attention-grabbing publicity coup. At the precise moment England's shop-soiled silver-spooner was seeking salvation inside a multi-coloured Harlequins shirt - camera, lights and cue the sincerity - Bateman was sitting in a limelight-free corner of a Cardiff hotel lounge, discussing his own rather more significant comeback in the only manner he has ever found agreeable. Quietly and without fuss.

"It's lovely to be back, but there's not much breathing space these days, is there?" he said, his gentle Maesteg lilt noticeably unaffected by a sporting sojourn that has taken him from the Welsh Valleys to swinging Richmond via the rugby league heartlands of Warrington and Sydney. "It's not that I'm getting old; I may look old, but I really don't feel it. I'm just saying that with Premiership rugby as intense as it is and a Five Nations' Championship in full flow, there's no respite. And to think Richmond have just drawn Leicester in the [Tetley's Bitter] Cup. That's nice, isn't it, sandwiched between an international against Ireland and another in Paris?"

Bateman will survive, of course. True craftsmen always do and, according to his peers, there are none truer than the 33-year-old Lion who resumes his international career against Scotland at Murrayfield this afternoon. Blessed with an outside break very nearly as smooth as Jeremy Guscott's and anticipation almost as sharp as Tim Horan's, he organises defences with the precision of a Phil de Glanville and runs Stephane Glas angles better than Stephane Glas. If he does not leave his opponents in need of a restorative session with the local panel-beater, like his spherical countryman Scott Gibbs, his tackling still has a rib-tickling crispness about it. What is more, he is enjoying the sort of timeless longevity that made Frank Bunce an All Black legend.

Agreed, he cannot boast much of a kicking game - during a punting session on the 1997 Lions tour of South Africa, Tim Rodber memorably asked him: "Are you sure you're not left-footed, Al?" He may even be on the slippery slope, in so far as he has made his annual mistake unusually early in the year. "Oh yes, the Leicester match," he laughed, recalling Richmond's Premiership One defeat by the Tigers 11 days ago. "I thought I'd given their defence the slip, but as I took off towards the line I realised I was a mile in touch and everyone else had stopped." That's obviously his problem. No spatial awareness.

In all seriousness, though, he remains the closest approximation to a model professional currently at work in the northern hemisphere game. Well as Mark Taylor, the Swansea centre, performed in Bateman's injury- induced absence as Wales recovered some long-lost credibility against South Africa and Argentina before Christmas, the smart money was always riding on an early return to the status quo. Graham Henry, the Welsh coach, knows plenty about this strange old game and one of the things he knows best of all is that Bateman is an absolute diamond.

Not that the last year and a half or so has been a cakewalk. Anything but.

To begin with, Bateman was officially declared, by no less an authority than Fran Cotton, the unluckiest Lion of the '97 pride. He produced his fair share of masterpieces during that never-to-be-forgotten campaign; indeed, his performances against the Emerging Springboks in Wellington and the mean-eyed enforcers of the Free State in Bloemfontein were definitive statements of the centre's art. The selectors, however, were always going to stick with their original iron fist/velvet glove combination of Gibbs and Guscott. Had he not been confronted by rivals equipped with unique and complementary gifts, Bateman's would have been the first name on the team-sheet. As it was, he had to wait until Guscott broke an arm in the final Test before getting a run at the Bokke midfield.

Then the hard knocks began to kick in. There was the nose job that denied him a second visit to South Africa last summer and the shoulder job that cost him two caps last November. The hardest knock of all, though, affected him emotionally rather than physically; in fact, it devastated him for the best part of a month. Bateman was preparing for the final match of last season's Five Nations, a lip-smacking Wembley set-to with the Grand Slam-chasing French, when his daughter Naomi, then six, lost more than 90 per cent of her sight.

"It was a desperate time, unimaginably horrible," he said this week. "Naomi was struck by some sort of airborne virus and her sight went in the space of an hour. Just like that. Gone. For three weeks, we just didn't know what was going to happen. And then, her vision returned. It was the most extraordinary thing and I still find it difficult to work it all out, although I've since heard of other people suffering something similar. She's fine now, thank God. In fact, she had her eyes tested only last week and she has better than average vision for her age."

Bateman took compassionate leave from duty against the Tricolores and thanks to his subsequent bumps and bruises, it is now 10 months since he last pulled the Welsh scarlet over his wise old head. For the average thirty-something, such a lengthy career break would inevitably have evolved into something permanent, especially as Wales are not as short of midfield options as they are of Test-quality prop forwards. The words "Bateman" and "average" are not often seen in close proximity, however.

"I didn't have the faintest idea whether or not I'd be playing until Monday morning," he said, "and when Graham told me I was in, I just nodded and said `Thanks very much'. It was all I needed to know. Mark had two excellent outings in the pre-Christmas Tests and I'd have understood it if I'd been put on the bench for this one. He'll be disappointed, of course, but he has a few years on me, a career ahead of him as opposed to one that's largely behind him. Mind you, I've got my eyes on the World Cup this autumn. I feel every bit as good about myself as I did five or six years ago; I've been playing rugby and, more importantly, training to play rugby for 16 years now and I'm in decent shape. I've another year left with Richmond and I won't look beyond that until I have to."

And so to Murrayfield, where Wales are more strongly fancied than at any time since the honey-sweet days of Gareth, JPR and the Viet Gwent.

Typically, Bateman is sidestepping the hype like Phil Bennett on spring heels. "Sure, Graham has given us a great deal of belief. He's very bright, very capable and he gives players the confidence they need to do the required job. But things can go badly wrong in this game, almost without you noticing. By the time you wake up to the fact, you're buried.

"Look at Twickenham last year, when we started perfectly well against England, went points up and ended up losing by 60. You feel so helpless when that happens to you; when every tackle is just out of reach and every opposition drive goes that little bit too far. You have to stay right on your game for the full 80 if you're going to get anything out of a Five Nations international. I know people are talking about us, even more than they usually do at the start of a Championship. Quite honestly, though, I'd settle for any sort of win in Scotland. That would do nicely."