After London Irish stepped in to fulfil a fixture for Northampton Wanderers on Monday night the performance of a few of the Academy was the talk of fans who had attended (and many of us who didn’t). Of particular note was a first year hooker who started out in the front row who scored a try, so we gave Ben Atkins a call to find out just what that was like and ask how he is settling in at the Academy.
So Ben, today’s a recovery day, is that right?
Yeah, pretty much. We trained yesterday so I had the day off today and tomorrow as well, then playing on Saturday with the loan club.
Very nice, is it the Wild Geese you’re playing for?
That’s where I am at the moment. Me and a couple of others which is quite nice.
How are you finding it there? It must be nice playing at Hazelwood.
Oh yeah, being that close to the loan club is ideal, it makes the commute pretty easy… you can literally wakeup 5 minutes before you need to go and train which makes life pretty easy. It’s nice that we get to use the facilities and stuff but we’re not in a great position at the moment with Geese but hopefully going in an upward direction.
Its early days for the season so plenty of time to right the ship.
There’s a lot of new players and we’re just getting used to new systems but we’ve improved game on game so hopefully we can get a good result this weekend.
You played the A League game up in Northampton on Monday how did you find that?
It was really exciting! I was pretty shocked to be honest that I got a start, especially with the amount of good players we’ve got kicking about. I’m just really glad that I took the opportunity, got 80 minutes under my belt and I was happy with how I ran.
Obviously to play at a ground as historic as Franklins Gardens is pretty special and something I won’t forget for a long time.
You got a try as well, which is always nice?
Oh yeah, just off the back of the maul so a lot of hard work from the lads, a lot of work goes into that by Skives, so it’s just nice to dot down I guess.
Well it worked alright for Paicey for quite a few years!
I think that’s what all hookers try to go for, just get on the end of a good maul!
It’s your first year as part of the senior academy, how are you finding it so far?
Yeah it’s good. The transition has been pretty quick! I did my last exam on a Wednesday and was in training the next day to start pre-season, so it was a pretty quick turnaround. Moving to the academy house was a big change but I’m really enjoying it, it’s a good opportunity and a nice group of lads, we get on well. It’s a really good experience to be honest, playing rugby every day with your mates…
What more could you ask for?
So how are you finding it living in the academy house, do you think it’s bringing you all closer together?
Oh yeah definitely! Obviously when you first move in you know the lads but you don’t really know them as people… you haven’t lived together or spent that much time together because you only get one night a week at academy and a couple of games to really get to know them.
So yeah, it definitely helps, makes us a good unit and hopefully means we play more for each other, do social activities and hopefully form more of a tight knit group.
It’s nice that there’s another academy house for the older lads as well so everyone’s a part of it together. We do lots of activities, going for coffee and stuff like that so we believe if we’re all mates off the pitch it will make us better on the pitch.
Does having your brother a couple of years ahead of you in the system mean you knew better than most what to expect as you stepped up?
Yeah, with Jacob being around I’ve watched him and been in and around things for the past year. Obviously he’s been there for a couple of years so I had more knowledge than some of the guys coming in, but I think as much as you see it, until you actually experience it… it’s very different, the training demand and stuff like that. It’s hard to get used to, but I almost, like, mentally prepped for it because I’d seen Jacob go through it and that allowed me to have a better perspective on it and see more of a long term goal rather than just the immediate couple of weeks getting used to it and trying to settle on my feet.
And he’s a back as well so he’s got it easy…
Yeah! He doesn’t have to do Tuesday scrummaging sessions!
Funny you should say that. We spoke to Petrus during pre-season and he said you were really holding your own with the front row guys, that’s pretty impressive for a guy in his first year at the academy.
To be honest, I do think having Saia, Dave and Motu with a ridiculous amount of Super Rugby and International experience between them I just try to be as much of a sponge as I can, learn as much from them and that’s helped me develop so quickly!
To go from never having scrummed in a Mens game before pre-season to getting a full 80 on Monday just a few weeks later is down to them putting a lot of hard work in with me, being really open and whenever I’m asking the questions, helping. So I really owe those guys a lot, especially for the first couple of weeks of my career.
…It’s weird to say career when it’s a job… it’s just playing rugby innit!
Is it right that until fairly recently you were a flanker rather than playing in the front row?
Yeah, I was a flanker up until my last year of college. So up until under 18s I’d played back row pretty much all through my rugby, I played a little bit of centre back when I was a bit quicker.
I had a meeting with Rich Pryor and when Fish – Jon Fisher – came on board he was one of the first people that spoke to me about it and put things in the perspective of rugby being a physical game. Everyone’s getting bigger, stronger… not being 6 foot 6 or ridiculously fast off the mark, moving forward made more sense for me.
Now that I’ve put more time in, it’s been quite a few weeks into the process, I think it has been a good move for me personally.
I suppose that means you bring a different option to the front row too. Looking at players like Dave Ward or Fraser Brown and the versatility they bring has to help you with options going forward?
I spoke to the coaches and said I didn’t want to be an old school hooker who isn’t very mobile round the park or doesn’t have so much impact at the breakdown as modern day hookers would. I tried to say I wanted to be like a fourth back rower on the pitch, having enough time and speed around the park, getting a lot of ball and trying to get turnovers is something I’ve tried to keep in my game while developing my set piece.
So that’s what I’m trying to do, just keep playing like a back row, just at hooker.
So are there any particular players you look to and think “that’s the kind of player I want to be” or are you just trying to be you?
It’s a little bit of a mix, I kind of think I’m similar to some players and obviously I try to emulate the success of people like Saia and Dave (and Motu). But I look to players like Malcolm Marx over in South Africa. Dylan Hartley’s a player I try to emulate with how vocal he is on the pitch and his leadership, that’s something I try to emulate.
For me I’m a bit of a different player to others so being my one player and being the best player I can be is what will send me furthest in my career.
I’ve mentioned him already and he’s an absolute legend at the club, so wearing the number 2 shirt do you look toward David Paice a little too?
Yeah massively! I was quite lucky at the end of my last year at school I got to be around some of the sessions with the first team and speak with Paicey, and Tom Woolstencroft when he was around, and try to get as much learning from them.
It was a little bit surreal, in fact it’s still surreal now. I was an 8 year old watching Paicey play, and Dec and all those lot and there I am asking them for tips on how to improve my throwing and scrummaging and they were really open and honest in trying to help develop me.
Having Dec and Skivs there and seeing the longevity they had in the game has to be inspiring too. I can hear the passion in your voice when you talk about playing rugby so seeing how they’ve kept themselves in the game beyond their playing career, does that inspire you at all?
The RPA have been really good. I’m what, 15 or 26 weeks into my professional career and already thinking about post-rugby and trying to expand and all of that. Studying a degree is helping as well, it’s broadening my perspective because rugby isn’t forever.
Hopefully I can have a long career and achieve all that I want to achieve but injuries happen and the game is very touch and physical so trying to have a perspective on things like that is very important.
Now we started these interviews to mark 20 years of the Supporters Club, so what’s it like for you as someone who has gone from sitting in the stands at the Madejski for a good few years to suddenly be on the other side of the curtain so to speak?
It’s weird, I was speaking to Ben Loader about this actually. We used to go every weekend, sit in the East Stand and watch Irish play against teams like Munster, I was there at those games… against Leinster at Twickenham and all those kind of games.
Now to be involved as part of the team and hopefully able to contribute in getting us back to the position that we want to be in, in the Premiership and European rugby is really exciting and quite humbling. You always dream but never really think it might happen because of how slim the chances are. How lucky and fortunate I am to be in this position, I just want to repay the club for putting all that hard work into me, doing all the extras.
Being on the other side as you said, trying to give back as much as we can and trying to help promote so we can get more kids coming through and help create a better team going forwards and become those European and International players that we’ve dreamed of being. That’s the goal to achieve!
Well we’re all hoping to see you guys achieve all of that and being there to cheer you on! One last question from us… you’ve not long moved in with a bunch of new lads, so who has the most annoying habits in the academy house?
Dunno… to be honest there’s not too many annoying habits, nobody constantly plays really loud music or anything like that, it’s a pretty chilled out vibe at the house. Maybe Ben Donnell, he says some stupid random things sometimes that can get on your nerves but to be honest I don’t think there’s anyone with a real annoying habit.
Huge thanks to Ben Atkins for his time. If you want to go and give him (and a few of the other academy lads) some support the Wild Geese play their next home game at Hazelwood on Saturday October 6th.
As always this interview was brought to you by Matt Merritt and @RugbyLI.