‘Fantastic’ Batger Hailed As An Eastwood Great
by Paul Cook –
“I know I’m not known for my defence but I made a good try saving tackle that day so that’s one of my fondest memories,” laughs Ben Batger when he recalls his 1st Grade run-on debut for Eastwood against West Harbour back in 2004.
“I guess back then you don’t really think you’re going to play that long but I’m really proud of it when I look at it now and it seems a bit unbelievable to be honest.”
Not only has Batger been a regular fixture at TG Millner Field for the last 11 years, he’s also been one of the club’s most successful. Having racked up over 150 1st Grade games – “I played my 150th last season so I think I’ve played around 160,” he says – he forged his own slice of history a fortnight ago, his 10pts against Eastern Suburbs taking him past Dave Creagh to become Eastwood’s all-time top points scorer.
At least, we’re pretty sure he has.
“We have a few years missing in the club archives,” explains Eastwood General Manager Robert Frost. “We’re fairly positive that is the case but Ben may be 100pts behind or even 100pts ahead of the existing record already.”
What we can say while we wait for official confirmation, is that 1528pts (Ben added 14pts in last Saturday’s win over Sydney University) across 11 years at one club is still a fantastic achievement and one worthy of celebration. A prolific try scorer, he is also known for his goal kicking exploits but he hasn’t always been first choice kicker.
Having also missed an entire season with a broken leg, he’s still racked up an average of around 10pts per match throughout his club career. Given the pantheon of legends that have graced the white and blue down the years, the feat is a testament to Batger’s longevity and talent, albeit, one which was never quite realised at the next level.
Hailing from Kenthurst, roughly 20 minutes West of TG Millner, Batger was a product of Kings School, where he went on to play three years of first XV rugby in the GPS schools competition. But rugby wasn’t his first passion.
“Growing up I was a big leaguie and I loved the Balmain Tigers, so Garry Jack was my first hero and then Tim Brasher,” admits the 31-year-old. “I remember telling people at school I was going to play for Balmain but I never took it up, it was too physical for me – I didn’t really have the defensive capabilities!”
With his league career a non-starter, the young Batger focused on union and was a star turn in what was a talent laden Kings 1st XV, etching his name forever into the school’s folklore when, aged 15-years-old, he kicked a 45 metre penalty after the bell to beat Riverview and win the Premiership.
Having followed a group of friends from Kings into the Under 10/11’s Eastwood junior sides, his progression into the colts set-up at TG Millner a few years later was a given. At 20-years-old, he was ready for grade and one of the most meteoric rises in Australian rugby then ensued as he went from 3rd Grade to a Super Rugby contract in a little over six months.
At the time, Eastwood were reigning two-time Shute Shield Premiers having beaten Sydney University and Randwick in the 2002 and 2003 Grand Finals respectively. Coached by a certain Chris Hickey, they were a force to be reckoned with in club land, laden with talent and driven with a desire to achieve a hat-trick of titles.
To say it was a steep learning curve for Batger would be an understatement but sure enough, after only three games in 3rd Grade and two in 2nd Grade, he made the leap into the big boys ranks, coming off the bench a few times before making his run-on debut on July 31st 2004 against the Pirates. He obviously impressed, keeping his place at fullback for the rest of the season until the Woodies missed out on a famous three-peat with defeat in the title decider.
“We lost in the 2004 final to a very good Randwick team,” he recalls. “It was a big learning curve coming through the grades so quickly and finding yourself playing alongside these great players. The two big dogs in the team were Scotty Fava and Tim Donnelly, everyone at Eastwood looked up to them. They were Super Rugby players and they were a step above absolutely everyone at that level.”
Scrumhalf back then was Dave Rimmer. Still a good mate of Batger’s, he too remembers those times fondly but recalls that the young tyro’s fledgling steps in 1st Grade weren’t much to write home about. “He debuted against Gordon earlier in the year and had an absolute shocker,” laughs Rimmer. “He honestly dropped the ball five times and the older blokes in the team were wondering who this kid was and why he wasn’t in 3rd grade. But after that game he just had the golden touch. The ball bounced his way all year and he played outstandingly.”
Also on board in those days was future Waratahs and Brumbies lock, Ben Hand. Now captaining Grenoble a world away in the French Top 14, his playing memories of Batger go all the way back to their school days.
“I’ve been lucky enough to know Ben for over 20 years now as he is a very close friend of my younger brother and they played junior footy together as kids and then went to Kings with us,” explains Hand. “Ben and I played in the 1st XV together there and won two premierships with Ben being a standout, particularly with that kick against Riverview, which I’ll never forget.”
“He then came to Eastwood and quickly made his name and was instrumental in us reaching the Grand Final in 2004,” Hand continues. “I also remember him loving to read the Rugby News program in the stand at TG Millner prior to the match and would be filthy if someone had stolen his beloved program. I’m pretty sure he was looking for photos of himself as well as checking the leading point scorers in the comp and where he stood! He loves his stats and I think if you asked him he could pretty match recount where and when he had scored the majority of his tries throughout his Eastwood career.”
Ah, that old badinage that keeps a dressing shed ticking over. There’s nobody better and more brutally savage at taking the piss than a friend or team mate, it’s a vital part of the culture that bonds a group of blokes – or indeed ladies – into a tight knit unit that would walk through walls for each other out on the field.
Naturally, both Ben and Dave were more than happy to rip their friend to shreds even more when gifted the opportunity.
“I remember him being obsessed with how his hair looked, his superstition of white electrical strapping for his boots and our shared love of the Wests Tigers,” reveals Hand.
“He is quite a strange guy with very weird superstitions,” Rimmer adds. “He has to play with white electrical tape on his boots and it has to be three strips wide when he tapes it. He also hangs his boots up on the hooks in the dressing room while he gets ready. Ben loved the camera and always unashamedly got haircuts before TV games and would watch replays of himself in the team room at training over and over!”
By season’s end in 2004, Batger found himself on the radar of two-thirds of Australia’s Super Rugby competitors – no Rebels or Force in those days. But when then New South Wales head coach Ewen McKenzie invited him on the Waratahs’ development tour of Argentina, the young utility had to fess up and inform him that he had just signed a contract with the Brumbies.
Again, he found himself joining a title winning side, the Canberrans having defeated the mighty Crusaders in style a few months earlier to lift the 2004 Super Rugby trophy. And again, he found himself sharing some illustrious company, with an entire Wallaby backline to compete with for a spot in the team.
Such a meteoric rise illustrates the high esteem that Batger was held in at the time, and a prosperous career at the next level at least, seemed assured. But after only nine caps and two years of to-ing and fro-ing up the Hume Highway to continue his club footy with the Woodies, he was back in club land on a permanent basis. Eleven years on, he has had time to reflect on the positives and negatives from that experience.
“It was a lot of pressure but at the same time, an awesome experience,” he says. “I was 20-years-old when I went to Canberra, they’d just won the Super Rugby competition and I think I played in one particular game and the backline was Gregan, Larkham, Giteau, Mortlock, Gerrard, Rathbone and myself – pick the odd man out there! Maybe my joining coincided with their slide – they haven’t won a title since!
“In all seriousness, I reckon I got picked too young for the Brumbies. I didn’t know how to prepare and a lot of the time, I didn’t actually enjoy myself. I took it a bit too seriously and lost some of the fun of playing and I think that affected how I played during my time in Super Rugby. If I had that time again I’d try to be a lot more relaxed.”
Things took a worse turn when he subsequently broke his leg in the 2006 Shute Shield Grand Final. Complications to the injury kept him out of the game for a whole year and, with a potential professional career stalling fast, he took the opportunity to broaden his horizons and breathe in some fresh rugby air with a stint in the NPC in New Zealand for Hawke’s Bay.
“I loved my time over there,” he smiles. “It was something different and just what I needed and I got to play with a couple of future stars of the game too as my wingers were a couple of promising 18-year-olds called Israel Dagg and Zac Guildford.”
The punt paid dividends as NSW Waratahs came calling once again in 2008 with a two year contract. But a side rebounding from their nadir of 2007 with the up and coming talents of Kurtley Beale, Rob Horne, Lachie Turner, Tom Carter and Daniel Halangahu, alongside stalwart Lote Tuqiri, proved to be an immovable force and Batger once again found himself on the fringes.
A shoulder reconstruction after injuring himself on the Waratahs tour of Fiji in 2008, kept him out of action for another nine months and cruelled any hope of securing that elusive Cambridge Blue jersey. It did, however, give him a chance to spend some quality practice time during rehab with his boyhood rugby idol, fellow Eastwood alumni and Wallaby legend, Matt Burke.
“Well, when you talk about idols in rugby, he’s someone I’d always wanted to emulate,” Batger reveals. “Eastwood fullback, New South Wales fullback, Australian fullback and goalkicker – I pretty much wanted to have everything in common with him, and when I got to the Tahs I was lucky enough to work with him, which was a big thrill. I’ve always been a footy fan so to work with someone you idolised was a great opportunity.”
It is in fact Burke that we have to thank for Batger’s unique kicking technique. After placing the ball on the kicking tee, he turns away from the posts to line it up before walking past the ball, turning again, commencing his run-up and, more often than not, dissecting the uprights.
“He picked up that I was lining the ball up incorrectly when I look at the posts from behind for some reason but when I turn around and look at the front of the ball, I can straighten it up a lot better – it’s weird!” Batger says. “I went from kicking around the low 70’s into the high 70’s so it’s definitely worked for me.”
A short stint in Italy in 2010 was another enjoyable experience before finally, after one too many false starts, he got to don the colours of his state in a one-off appearance at the end of the 2011 season. An injury ravaged Waratahs outfit were limping towards a finals place when coach Chris Hickey sent out an SOS to the Shute Shield, and two of his former trusted lieutenants in Batger and Eastwood captain Hugh Perrett, answered the call.
“We got to travel to South Africa for a few weeks and I finally got to play for the Waratahs against the Sharks in Durban,” says Batger. “Myself and Hughie, who is a great mate of mine from the Woodies, got to room together and had a great time. It was short but very sweet.”
Batger’s respect for Hickey is palpable. He has played under and learned from four good coaches at Eastwood in Hickey, John Briggs, Brian Melrose and John Manenti. But while he is a big fan of the club’s current head honcho – “Johnny is a really good coach, he’s got a plan to work to and runs a really good program,” – he feels the way Hickey took him under his wing in the early days, has had the biggest impact on his game and career.
“I was young and had a lot more to learn so he was definitely the most influential and I still call him for advice now if he’s in town. I was a bit reckless and he got hold of me, narrowed my focus down and cut a lot of crap out of my game. I definitely look up to him, he’s the best coach I’ve had in rugby across all levels and I’ve only got good words to say about him.”
2011 ended with what Batger regards as the finest moment of his time in club football. Victory over the most dominant team in the Shute Shield over the last decade, in what was the best Grand Final in living memory.
“That was the year we dropped one game all season and won an incredible Grand Final in extra-time against a very, very good Sydney Uni team and we ended their six year winning streak in the process,” Batger says proudly. “It was an amazing day, so many people turned up to cheer us on and that’s one of the great things about playing for Eastwood, how much support we have.”
Since then, it’s been a case of staying fit on and off the field (Batger runs a personal training business and also a gym with fellow sharpshooter, West Harbour’s Dave Harvey) and doing his best for his beloved Woodies for as long as he can.
Eleven years down and with a few more seemingly left in the tank, he can reflect on a club career that has taken in those 160-odd games, the 1528pts, two Shute Shield Premierships (effectively three but he doesn’t count last year’s win over Southern Districts as he missed the game through injury) and a lifetime of memories. But ask him what he will take most from his time at the Woodies, and it’s not about trophies, records or plaudits.
“Behind Uni, it’s probably been Eastwood that have been the most successful club in that time and that’s a result of the high standards we have at the club. But more than that, it’s a family,” he says. “You’ll find that once players come to Eastwood, they rarely leave to go to another club, that’s the type of environment it creates. You want to be there and you want to play for them.
“Getting a Super Rugby contract was amazing and one of the best moments of my football career but I always had Eastwood to fall back on. If I failed there, and I did, I knew I could always come back to these blokes and they’ll have you every day of the week. They’ve always treated me well.”
Talk of family is an appropriate place to end, as Ben is not the only talented Batger in the Eastwood fold. Younger brother Nick has risen through the ranks to join him in 1st Grade in recent seasons, a rugby kinship that has wreaked havoc for many Shute Shield defences, and provided Ben with some unforgettable memories.
“Playing with my brother has been one of my best rugby experiences, however, both of us missing last years Grand Final because of injuries we attained in the semi-final, was one of the worst. We are very close and have a very good understanding on the field and if not for injuries, Nick could have played at a higher level too and we would have played a lot more together.”
With Eastwood currently unbeaten and leading this year’s Shute Shield competition, both Batgers may get the chance to turn out together in a Grand Final after all if form and health persist (Nick is now on the comeback trail in lower grade). And while his ‘record’ may be open to debate for now, there’s no questioning the influence Ben Batger has had on the Eastwood club.
Just ask his team mates.
“My best memory of Ben was in 2010 v Sydney Uni,” says Dave Rimmer. “We were attacking the Uni line and they got an intercept. Ben chased Peter Betham for 80 metres and caught him, tackled him and then won a penalty. It was an unbelievable play that lifted the team. That is what he was capable of from a very young age, coming up with a huge play or a kick that was able to lift the team. He loves the pressure situations.”
“Ben will go down as one of the greats of Eastwood, with his opportunities at the next level unfortunately marred by injuries,” says Ben Hand. “The fact he has scored that many points is not only testament to his try scoring and goal kicking ability, but also to his longevity and loyalty to the club.”
But the final words go to Eastwood legend and club President, Brett Papworth. A former Wallaby and respected analyst for the greatly missed ABC Shute Shield presenting team, Papworth bleeds blue and white and has had the pleasure of watching the scoring baton pass from Dave Creagh to Batger from a unique vantage point.
“I actually played with Dave Creagh, a 16 stone fullback who was a wonderful kicker,” Papworth reveals. “He was a toe-poker off two steps who knocked them over regularly from halfway. But I’m not sure anything I say can do justice to Ben’s achievement, or to his contribution to Eastwood Rugby.
“We have been very lucky to have Ben at our Club. He came from a very good team at The Kings School and he had serious speed. He didn’t spend long in the lower grades, before becoming a 1st Grade fixture for more than a decade and he didn’t even kick much in the early years, as we had the likes of Tim Donnelly and others ahead of him, so he had to bide his time.
“He should have won more than 9 caps down at the Brumbies, but at 21-years-old, had been discarded for the next young superstar in waiting, some years before reaching his peak.
“We owe much of our recent success to the fact we have had some experienced guys keen to keep playing, and helping guide the youngsters and Ben has been important as the cool head under pressure many times – on and off the field!
“He has obviously looked after himself, and is in good shape, but he just enjoys the game and has fun. Ben has been fantastic, and I suspect he is not done yet.”