An undoubted star of York City Knights’ 2018 campaign thus far, second-rower Joe Batchelor has been one of the stars and, indeed, his ability has been noted upon by Super League clubs. The man who is set to join St Helens for 2019, however, only has one thing on his mind at present.
“We’ve started really well at York. We had a tough block of fixtures at the start of the season,” the 23-year-old expressed. “That first group had, what I’d say, the eight top teams and then we’ve had a couple of the lower teams.” Despite the strong start which saw York win nine matches in a row, Get ’em Onside’s meeting with Batchelor came in the week following the defeat which ended that run, a 26-18 reverse at Cumbrian outfit Whitehaven. Speaking of that defeat, the former Coventry forward admitted that the team should have done better. “We probably haven’t done ourselves justice over the last month or so but, as a whole, we’ve got to be pleased with the results we have picked up but we’ve got big ambitions at York and we are definitely looking to get back to our standards.” This interview took place days before York put Whitehaven’s fellow Cumbrians Workington Town to the sword with a 40-8 victory at Bootham Crescent, a match in which Batchelor crossed twice and he revealed that the encounter was a great opportunity for York. “It’s a massive game, they’ve recruited big names and they’ve already turned Bradford over this year. It gives us the perfect opportunity in front of the home fans – they are great at York – to get things back on track and to kick start the second half of the season.”
The fact that, despite just two losses to their name this season, Batchelor still feels the club can do better just goes to highlight the progress the club has made in the last eighteen months. Going back to the off-season prior to the 2017 campaign – the former Wakefield College man’s first season with the Knights – when the club seemed set to fold before John Flatman and Mark Campbell took control, there was barely any real or proper preparation done for the campaign which, in the player’s own words, started slowly. “I still remember the first training session of that pre-season, there was twenty lads there and only five of them knew each other,” he explained, continuing that “we hadn’t created an identity by the time the season started and we hadn’t gelled. We went into the season and started off really poorly.” The upward trajectory, however, really began in the second half of last season and that has continued into this. “We started buying into everything a bit more, training went up a level in intensity and we became the hardest working team we could be.” As a result of the culture which head coach James Ford and his coaching staff had instilled in the Knights’ vintage of 2017, Batchelor further articulated how that benefited their preparations last winter. “This pre-season, any lads that came in knew they had to knuckle down so we started the season and hit the ground running – we reaped rewards straight away which was great for us.”
Highly-rated Ford is a man who has had a huge impact on York City Knights in general but especially for Batchelor who played under the current boss of the Minster city club with his brother during their time at Wakefield College. Regarded as one of the brightest coaches outside of Super League – indeed, he has recently been appointed an England Academy assistant – the Knights’ number 11 explained his current coach’s commitment to his role. “He does ask a lot from us but he doesn’t hide away from that. From day one, we all know that and the lads ask a lot of each other as well… it is a big commitment, especially for part-time players, but you reap the rewards if you put in the hard work – which we hope to be doing by the end of the season.”
Regardless of whether the Knights achieve their promotion goal come season’s end, the former Coventry Bear is set to be progressing through the divisions following his recent signing for St Helens. Speaking of how that move came about, the forward revealed that it wasn’t until quite late on that he was aware of it. “Other people had spoken about there being interest but I hadn’t heard anything set in stone, I thought it was just rumours,” he admitted, continuing that “a couple of clubs started getting in touch around the end of March and I went to meet some of them. It escalated from there, St Helens put a good deal on the table and I wanted to go there!” Batchelor went on to confirm the impact the Knights’ helmsman has had on him earning his big move. “In terms of getting me to the point where a full-time club wants to give me a deal, he’s had a huge bearing. He’s been absolutely huge for getting me to that deal, without him and everybody at York, it wouldn’t have happened,” he professed.
Indeed, the Knights’ current players Tim Spears, Graeme Horne and Sam Scott have huge experience at a higher level and Batchelor thanked those experienced pros for their impact on him as a player. “Spearsy’s been great for the last two years, he’s come from a top-end Championship side and he’s brought that level of attitude down to us at York and instilled that,” he outlined, continuing “I’ve learnt a lot from Tim and then Graeme Horne came in during pre-season. He’s been massive for all of us, he’s played back row at top level and he’s been great for me. All of the leadership boys are.” One great thing that is noticeable from just watching York City Knights play – let alone speaking to the players and the coach – is the togetherness in the squad and that is something Batchelor doesn’t believe you would find at every club. “I reckon if you went to some clubs there would be an older group and a younger group, a bit cliquey, not at York, though. We are one group where everyone is involved, the older lads love bringing the younger lads through and it’s a great atmosphere to work in.”
What has been mooted in recent weeks, especially following their impressive showing in defeat to Catalans Dragons, is that York are a Super League team in waiting. When asked how he sees the club faring in the future – and while confirming he has no crystal ball to hand – Batchelor believes the future is very bright for rugby league in the Minster city. “I think the way everything is going off the field at the moment with the social media stuff – as bizarre as some of it is – it works, it gets people through the gate and the vibe going around York. When the club are in the new stadium, everything will really kick on and York is a massive city – if they get into Super League, there is huge potential there.”
However, while Batchelor is getting ready to appear in Super League in the famous ‘red vee’, it’s fair to say that his journey to the top has been somewhat unconventional. While Sheffield Eagles wanted to keep him involved in the reserve setup in South Yorkshire, he confessed that the opportunity to spend time Down Under was one that was too good to pass up. “I loved my time over there. There was a lad I played at Dewsbury Celtic with who went the year before and he said to go over there, saying ‘even if the rugby doesn’t work out you’ll love the lifestyle. As a 19-year-old, I learnt quite a lot. I was living by myself, I had to make sure I had enough money coming in to live and I loved it, I’d love to go back at some point.” Upon his return to England, he returned to the Eagles only to be released again after a pre-season with them as Mark Aston’s team disbanded their reserve team. “I had a couple of months then when I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I didn’t know if I wanted to carry on trying to chase the dream but Coventry Bears had shown an interest in me when I came back to the country. I thought ‘let’s go for it and have some fun again’ so I texted Tom Tsang [Bears’ head coach]. I went down there, had a good four months where I enjoyed playing rugby, I realised I wanted to carry on chasing this and, luckily, Fordy asked me down for a trial and now I’m at York!”
Those experiences both Down Under and with the Coventry expansion team have no doubt resulted in Batchelor appreciating his opportunities more, especially his move to St Helens. As of 2019, another opportunity will present itself: facing his brother, James of Wakefield Trinity. When Get ’em Onside met the younger Batchelor brother earlier this season, 20-year-old James outlined his intentions if the two were to face each other; “I’ll probably just try to bang him!” Joe’s response? “He just needs to remember what happened in the garden all them years ago if he thinks he’s banging me!” he joked. “Our mum is going to be terrified because he’s a right edge player and I’m on the left so we’d be directly opposite each other.” Of his brother’s progression into Super League through a brief time in Wakefield’s academy, Joe articulated that “it just shows there’s different paths you can take to getting into Super League.” Set to move to Saints next year after they secured his signature ahead of other top flight teams, Batchelor added that “the more I watched Super League games, the way Saints are playing at the moment under Justin Holbrook and all of the backroom staff… the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I couldn’t turn down a club as big as that. The opportunity to play for a huge club under a quality coach is one I didn’t want to regret missing – it was definitely the size of the club and the quality of people there that swung me in the end.”
“The environment at Saints reminded me of York in a way – there’s a mix of young players who are real grafters and working hard alongside the old heads who are helping them through. There’s international players like Zeb Taia who I think is in the top five back-rowers in the competition. To learn off people like that, getting little nuggets, will be great but also speaking to the likes of Morgan Knowles about how they have gone about things will be invaluable for me as well – it’s definitely exciting.”
What is clear from speaking to Batchelor is that he, having worked his way up the ranks and around the world to get his Super League shot, is grateful for the opportunity that succeeding with York has offered him. However, with current talk of restructuring suggesting that the third tier – the Knights’ tier – could be deregulated, will other Joe Batchelors have the chance to make the jump? “It’s absolutely bonkers,” is his view on the potential deregulation. “Look at how the division is going this year – some of the teams in it… how you can say they don’t deserve semi-professional status is ridiculous. I get that the sport needs more funding and Super League clubs want more of it but this is the wrong way of going about it.” Indeed, just looking at players who have come through York’s ranks recently, Greg Minikin and Kriss Brining have made the Super League move to Castleford and Salford respectively having impressed in Knights’ colours with a clutch more having done so with third-tier clubs. “Because of there being no reserve competition, a lot of the nineteen-year-old lads find themselves in League One and try to make their way back up. While that’s the case, getting rid of our division would be madness.”
What isn’t madness, however, is the fact that Saints have taken the chance of giving Batchelor a Super League shot. What is no doubt going to be York’s loss will be St Helens’ gain as, given his appetite for hard-work and unquestionable talent, the 23-year-old will put his all into earning his top-flight chances in the ‘red vee’. More pressing matters, however, involve ensuring his time with the Knights ends in the best possible fashion – with promotion. “We believe we can but we have got a long way to go. The club won’t leave any stone unturned so it is down to us to ensure we make it happen – but we are confident and we want to be there.”