Ben Batger: A lot of my best memories in life are with Eastwood rugby

By Matt Findlay

It may be a simple, off-the-cuff comment from Woodies legend Ben Batger, but there’s no better way to signify how much the club means to him and, in turn, how proud he is to be at the helm in 2019.

The club’s leading all-time point-scorer and a veteran of three Shute Shield titles, Batger’s come full circle since retiring after the 2015 premiership win and, having taken the reins from three-time premiership-winning coach John Manenti, made the perfect start to his tenure last weekend with a 40-12 victory over Randwick.

For most his transition from player to coach looked a natural one and it seemed almost inevitable he’d end up in charge at his beloved club, particularly considering his role as one of Manenti’s three deputies in 2018.

The influence of Batger, Andrew Clyne and Matty Nilan was huge last year considering Manenti’s parallel commitments with the Australian women’s sevens outfit, and the season served as a perfect way to finish that apprenticeship.

“Towards the end of my playing career I was sort of moving towards the coaching side of things,” Batger explained.

“In 2013 and 2014 I was doing the first XV at Barker College so I sort of had moved that way naturally. After I retired from Eastwood (as a player) I deliberately stayed away from the place for a bit and did two years coaching in the states, then eventually made my way back.

“I was lucky enough to get a shot through Stu Woodhouse, first as skills coach and then John gave me a chance as assistant. Now I’m head coach and I think it happened perfectly, it was a nice little timeline really

“I actually really love it. It’s funny, you probably don’t realise the impact it has when you’re playing because I think I’m more nervous coaching than I ever was running out on the field.

“I wasn’t expecting that but it’s another exciting part of it, I guess it’s probably because you don’t have control over it from the sidelines, but I’ve loved getting into the coaching side of things and being the full-time coach gives me more of a chance to sort of stamp my views on the game as well.”

Batger pointed to those years with San Diego’s Old Mission Beach Athletic Club – where Jed Gillespie and John Grant also played – as a crucial period in terms of his development as a mentor, and the California Cup title the club won in 2016 was a real confidence boost.

“Winning [titles is] a bit of an ego boost as a coach but it does sort of validate your ideas as well,” Batger said.

“Originally I just went over as a player but after a few weeks I realised they needed a bit of help so ended up doing some coaching.

“They’re all just so keen to learn over there and they’re very receptive, that combined with winning gave me plenty of confidence.”

Batger said he’s already used plenty of what he learned under a handful of other “unbelievable coaches and leaders” during playing days.

“I got lucky in a way that there was so many good leaders in terms of players and coaches  around the club during my time like Tim Donnelly, Chris Hickey, Hugh Perrett and plenty of others,” Batger said, before reflecting on his glittering playing career as well, which netted titles in 2011, 2014 and 2015.

“In a way it was just perfect timing with all that coming together and just some great groups of guys. A lot of my best memories in life are with Eastwood rugby and that’s probably a good reflection of how close the club is to me.

“Through my time if I was away as a professional or just left for a year or two they’d always welcome me back and I always really enjoyed that family-type aspect of the club.”

And what of 2019, a season that already seems to hold so much promise for Batger and his table-topping Woodies? 

“We definitely want to win it. I’m not worried about any potential jinxes by saying that or anything,” he laughed.

“I’m not really sure how to put it into words about how much [a premiership in 2019] would mean. 

“Similar to being a player, you don’t really know how much they mean until you’ve won them but it would mean a hell of a lot, to a lot of people I’m sure.

“I do know I’m desperate to win it too.”

Eastwood host Manly at TG Millner at 3pm on Saturday.