Joe Batley admitted he was very emotional after making his Premiership debut for Bristol Bears just 11 months on from being diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma.
The former England Under-20 lock started in his side’s 36-26 defeat to Harlequins at Twickenham Stoop, and provided the assist for Charles Piutau’s first half try, writes James Ayles.
Just being on the pitch was a triumph for ex-Gosport & Fareham player Batley, 22, who discovered the cancer in March 2018 and went into remission in June.
The second row praised the support he received from across the rugby community while recovering from the illness, which attacks the lymphatic system and is diagnosed in around 2,000 adults every year.
Batley said: ‘Everyone wanted to know I was okay at every stage.
‘I have been blessed to have support from Gosport & Fareham rugby club throughout my career and our family is heavily invested within Gosport, the support I got back during treatment was incredible.
‘Everyone was on board and wanted to keep up to date.
‘Whenever there was a victory along the way to getting cancer free it was out there and people would offer so much support.
‘I can’t really describe how grateful I am, people I know and people I don’t know sent so much support my way.’
Having moved from Gloucester’s academy to then-Championship Bristol Bears in June 2017, Batley was playing his role in what would ultimately become a title-winning season when he noticed a lump on his neck.
Initially thought to just be a zit, the diagnosis dealt an enormous blow.
After intensive rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, Batley made his return at the end of August for Bristol Bears A, before a European Challenge Cup tie against Zebre on October 13 marked his first-team return.
Since then he has had to be patient for his opportunities in the Premiership.
With six locks out injured, that opportunity finally arrived last month.
On his debut, Batley said: ‘It sunk in pretty quickly after the game when I saw my mum and dad. It was pretty emotional. I’m so happy I’ve got that ticked off, now it is a real chance to build on this for the rest of the season.
‘Ever since I became a professional my aim was to get my Premiership debut so to do it this season was massive.
‘I’m extremely happy. The work behind all this goes back far longer than the year. I’ve had a lot of coaches help me to get to the skill level, the physicality, the understanding of the game. I feel it has been accelerated at Bristol under Pat Lam.
‘That side was always going to take care of itself when I got onto the pitch.
‘I just had to get myself to the right physical shape to then be able to compete and perform at that level.
‘The last 12 months has almost been a stepping stone just to keep my knowledge and skill set high then make sure the physical attributes I needed were up there as well.’
Batley approached the illness as he would any injury. Having already overcome a complete knee reconstruction aged 18 – which ruled him out for 13 months – the Portsmouth-born forward knew he could beat the disease.
‘I tried to treat it as much like an injury as I could, whenever I could train or do little bits the doctors and the physios were always on hand, we were always pushing to the same goals.
‘Everything was always on my terms. If I felt right one day I could little bits if I didn’t feel up to it, it was tapered.
‘There are not many cases of professional athletes having Hodgkin lymphoma so the time-frame was very subjective to how I was feeling, I was never pushed and never rushed, it was how I was feeling on the day.’
During and since his recovery, Batley has become involved in Portsmouth charity Rugby Against Cancer, donating shirts and items for auction to raise funds.
Batley also points to the support provided by his team-mates as vital in aiding his recovery, including former Gloucester hooker Darren Dawidiuck who himself overcame testicular cancer to resume playing.
Dawidiuck also suggested Batley adopt a vegan diet, which he did for six months during treatment.
On his team-mates, he said: ‘They were ridiculous. They went above and beyond some of them.
‘Quite a lot came down on different days while I was in hospital.
‘They would be with me for eight hours on one day, 10 on another just having pockets of people turn up to give my girlfriend and family a break was brilliant.
‘Ex-team-mates from Gloucester also came in and lifted my spirits, which was amazing.’