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'To get cancer kind of put a whole new twist on everything'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Hannah Fountain/CameraSport via Getty Images)

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Worcester forward Joe Batley sounds like he has got it sussed at the age of 25. It has been another season of strife at Sixways but the ex-England age-grade international has a way about him that ensures the emotions involved in repeatedly losing rugby matches are firmly kept in check. Life painfully taught him this lesson some years ago, that there was nothing to be gained from getting emotionally overwhelmed by results that are not to his liking at the weekend.

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Losing used to cut him deep as a teenager aspiring to make it as a pro. However, 13 months out of the game due to a severe cruciate knee ligament injury prompted a lot of growing up as did his subsequent cancer diagnosis in February 2018.

At the time the lock – who can ably double up as a blindside – was taking baby steps in living the dream, helping Bristol to their promotion back to the Gallagher Premiership, but Hodgkin’s lymphoma put that progress on hold and only since his arrival at Worcester in 2020 has his rugby accelerated onto another level.

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The upshot of it all is that he has never forgotten the twists and turns along the way. Just last week he was doing his bit to raise awareness about the Rugby Against Cancer charity group. “This is the second year in a row we have done this, we have raised money and ambassadors go out to hospitals and deliver Easter eggs to the junior wards to get given out,” he enthused to RugbyPass.

“It’s a massive feel-good and it’s nice. It’s an amazing charity and any opportunity I do get to give back I take. Last year I managed to go to the cancer ward that I was treated at and saw some of the familiar faces, the nurses and staff, and just give another thank you to them.

“Before cancer, my life was a thousand per cent rugby. I wanted to be a professional rugby player, that was what I wanted to do and I decided that when I was six. Then when I finally got the opportunity at Gloucester I was, ‘Okay, I want to play in the Prem’. Unfortunately, I then got an injury in my knee, things happened and I moved to Bristol.

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“We won the Championship and I was like, ‘Okay, I want to kick on again and play in the Prem, that is my dream’. To get cancer then kind of put a whole new twist on everything where rugby was my passion, it was what I loved to do but it wasn’t my everything. It became more about family, about what I wanted to do.

“I don’t want to say legacy, I don’t want to have a negative thought process but to realise that rugby was almost taken away from me as well as health, I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll get healthy, rugby will come off the back of that if I stick to working hard and I will try and enjoy the game instead of putting so much pressure on myself to succeed’.”

That approach eventually resulted in Batley flourishing at Worcester. “Luckily I was then able to play Premiership with Bristol and had a small stint with Leicester before getting the shot here at Worcester. I am just finding that I’m enjoying my rugby a lot more now because I have taken the pressure off performing.

“I still have that drive to perform well and play well. However, what I have learned now is that if I am consistent in my process, in my preparation during the week and then my emotional state during the game, then the performance almost takes care of itself. I’m looking within instead of looking outside which is quite important.”

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It was as an 18-year-old in the Gloucester academy when he made his first-team debut, fleetingly coming off the bench on an Anglo-Welsh Cup game. However, in all the years that followed, be it at Bristol or short-lived stints at Rotherham, Hartpury or Leicester, it wasn’t until this season at Worcester that Batley got into double figures in terms of starts in a campaign.

This Saturday’s visit to Wasps will be the eleventh start for Batley in this term’s Premiership campaign and with another year of his contract remaining at Worcester, it is clear he is coming into his prime despite his team’s difficulties in a season where they have had a coaching reshuffle and have won just five times.

“When I was younger I used to take losses a lot harder, being more emotional based. What I do now is if I am the same before the game and the same after, the game will take care of itself. Consistency is the main thing as a player that you drive towards. To be good one week and then not so good the next is no good to anyone because no one knows who they are picking, if they are going to pick an eight out of ten or if they are going to pick a four out of ten.

“There is a big difference there in terms of performance so I control my emotion before and after. That way the middle is consistent I find. Also, it’s no good bringing a loss home. I have got a seven-month-old and if I bring a loss home the missus won’t stay around too long and there is no need for that.

“It is upsetting, it is soul-destroying sometimes when you are losing. Last year was very tough for us. We beat London Irish in the first game of the season and then if you take away the covid wins we didn’t win again. That was tough as a player but it is important that you take every positive you can out of games and you look at the negatives – ‘How can we stop this from happening?’

“What we have done from last season to this season is some of the tight games that we lost last year we are now finding ourselves on the winning side of it. For example, last year we lost to Bristol and Exeter at home by very close margins and this year we have won those games by close margins. The growth is there and we are looking to keep building from that. We are looking to keep moving forward.”

Short-term success for Batley and the twelfth-place Worcester would be keeping ahead of Bath and ensuring they don’t finish bottom of the Premiership. There is no relegation this season, so all the pressure and anxiety generated by that scenario doesn’t exist with the season nearing its finish. All the same, you still don’t want to wind up at the bottom of the pile and it’s a situation that could go to the last day of the campaign on June 4 when the Warriors host Bath at Sixways.

“Oh God, it’s huge. We’re all athletes, we are competitive in our own right and no one wants to be bottom,” insisted Batley. “We have put far too much effort into this season to then look back at it to be like, ‘We were 13 out of 13’… we are working towards finishing higher up the table to springboard into next year.

“The group always changes, as rugby does. There are people who come in and people who leave. For this group of boys, we want to do as best as we can and have a bit more to show for the time and effort that we have put into the season. I know there is no pressure because there is no relegation but we put the pressure on ourselves because we do not want to finish 13th. The fans deserve us not to finish 13th as well.

“We are not naive. You know when you have had a bad game, you don’t need to be told too much. You take it on the chin and sometimes it is needed – it was definitely needed after the Newcastle game,” he said about the no-nonsense criticism from Steve Diamond, who took over the coaching from Jonathan Thomas in January and will soon succeed Alan Solomons as director of rugby.

“That wasn’t good enough. We as players and coaches all stand together and say, ‘That is not us. It is not a fair reflection of where we as a team are going’. The more honest we are with ourselves I feel that change is going to happen. If we try and sugarcoat things and look at different factors too much, then realistically we are kidding ourselves.”

What message has Diamond had for Batley in the twelve weeks since he took charge from Thomas after initially arriving at Worcester in late November as the lead rugby consultant? “What he has said that really struck me is if you do your job it’s hard to drop you, so I just focus on making sure I do exactly what the team needs and requires from me.

“Then anything extra I can do is a bonus but first and foremost I need to do my job. Now that I am playing week in week out I get more consistency in the performances I give and I have started to become more of a rounded player, which is something I have been chasing for a while.”

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