One of the undoubted success stories of this season when we look back in years to come will be the amount of opportunities coaches have given to academy players to make their mark on the team. Perhaps the best example is the seamless addition of Jacob Atkins to our depth of options at fly half, a young man who looks utterly at home pulling the strings and controlling the play of the team. Matt Merritt caught up with him in the week to see how his season is going.
Let’s rewind the clock a little to the end of January. The club are preparing to host Jersey Reds in the league and when the team is announced your name is in the fly half spot. How early in the week did you know you’d be getting the start?
I think he went down in training on the Tuesday … I probably would have found out late Wednesday so not early but enough to get my head round it, get the practice I needed, learn the plays and all that kind of stuff.
Jersey have been a real bugbear for us on our visits to the Championship so what was it like knowing you’d be getting your league start against them!
You’re right, Jersey have been a bugbear team for us haven’t they! Although they beat us earlier in the season I felt more confident because of that. Does that make sense?
I felt that because we had unfinished business with them the pack would come out so angry… some of those guys were so frustrated after the last game against them, seeing that try constantly on twitter… I think it had been eating at a few of the boys for a long time!
Those guys were so up for it they were going to put out their best performance as a pack for the whole season because they had a point to prove. That game me a lot of confidence going into the game.
Credit to the coaches and the senior players in the squad though, for me they made it feel like a normal game. Obviously it was on TV and it was built up as a big game but I definitely didn’t feel it and that’s credit to them for making me feel relaxed!
That certainly showed. You looked like you had been playing alongside those boys for months.
And of course I had, in training. I felt like because of the programme they had for me I was ready, I didn’t feel I’d been thrown in at the deep end or had any game time… they’d been preparing me all season.
Steve (Myler) had been helping as well. At some point somebody was going to get injured.
You mention Myler helping you prepare. Having him, and more recently Ian Keatley, around must be great for a young fly-half!
Oh yeah! I’ve been really lucky throughout my short career so far, I’ve always been surrounded by guys in my position or similar positions who’ve not only been really high quality players but also good people who have been willing to help me!
I’m sure there are cases out there in professional sports of players who play in the same position and that competition gets the better of them and leads to a bad relationship but throughout my time at London Irish, even early on with guys like James Marshall, Greig Tonks and Tommy Bell and this season Stephen and Keats, they’ve not only done the job at the highest level but they’re good guys who will give up their time to help me, will hang around after training to help me get better or sit down and review my games with me to help me learn. It’s a credit to the people they are as much as the players. They could be fantastic but have no interest in sharing that with me… especially Keats coming in. The first day he came and found me to say “look I’m here, not to steal anyone’s job but to help the team and to help you get better”.
He’s definitely taken that in his stride, he’s always picking my brain and trying to help me improve. He doesn’t have to do that, he’s only here for a short amount of time, but he’s made it clear his intent is to leave the club in a better place than when he joined. One of the ways he can do that is to help me develop as well as some of the other young guys. I live with Isaac (Curtis-Harris) and he’s been saying Keats has been helping him – they play completely different positions – but he’s been talking him through things and helping his understanding of the game.
Stephen has come in with a similar attitude, throughout the season he has been preparing me, going through things with me. When we had the run of cup games I had a few starts, Steve did everything he could to make sure I was ready for those games and when he went down he had been preparing me to step in if that should happen anyway.
You talked a lot there about relationships. Those interactions with the players around you are so important, that game you started alongside Ben Meehan but you’ve played behind Scott and Brendan too and with a host of guys at 12. How important is it to have a feel for the guys inside and outside of your position during the game?
It’s massive! You’re so dependent on a fluid, smooth relationship with those guys – they’re your eyes and ears. We’ve all seen teams where those relationships are off and they look awkward. That’s an awkward position for a 10 because you feel really uncomfortable but it’s something I’ve rarely experienced because of the quality of the 9s and 12s I’ve played with. You’ve got Terrence and Stevo (Tom Stephenson) playing a lot at the moment. Ferg has been injured but he was a guy that even in my first year I found it so easy to play alongside. Coming into mens rugby as an 18 years old is difficult but guys like him make it so easy, his understanding of the game is second to none and he’s so calm and composed.
It’s the same with guys like Tonksy and Tommy Bell at fullback. They’ve played at 10 throughout their career so they know what you want to hear, what you’re looking for, they really share the load. If you can rely on those guys and they’re talking to you all game, painting a picture for you – especially your 9 and 12 as they are the guys immediately either side of you – it makes a huge difference! It makes you feel like you’ve got time because you’ve got those guys communicating with you.
You’re a fly half and for people who are new to the game or casual fans of it the 10 is a position that is often misunderstood. I’ve heard people label it “the bloke who kicks” for instance… What is a fly-half to you?
I guess really it is about being whatever the team needs on a given day. On a dry day against a team you think you can take the game to you need to be at the fulcrum of the attack, leading the game, looking for space and opportunities to exploit for cross field kicks and breaks.
On another day, at a tough away ground in horrible conditions you’ve got to grind out a win so you have to be the guy who puts his foot on the ball and says “we’re not playing our game here”. You pin the corners, manage the tactical kicking game and the way you use penalties… you have to manage the referee and the clock!
That’s a completely different game to the first example. Basically your job is to do what the team needs of you in order to win. Sometimes the pack is on the front foot and you’ll have to do very little, other times the forwards might be up against it and you have to keep them moving, kicking the ball in behind and finding space. It might seem boring but your job is to get the team in the position to win and that is different every game depending on circumstances and situations.
I think that’s why it’s such an interesting position to play because every game is different whereas if you’re say a prop your job is to lock down the scrum, make your tackles, be physical and try to get carries. That will be the same every game. For me I might have a game where I hardly kick the ball and another where I kick it a hundred times. You’ve got to be prepared for all those situations.
Like we said earlier about having the opportunity to work with some of those experienced guys, this is the main thing they help you with… They’re not teaching you how to kick or pass, they are helping you understand when to make those kicks and passes. When the team needs you to step up or to stand back and let the pack take control, when you need to make the important decisions that result to the team getting a win!
Back in early January the club announced seven of the lads from the academy had signed new deals, yourself among them. How big was it for you not only to sign senior terms with the club, but to do so with these guys with whom you’d gone through so much alongside you?
It’s awesome isn’t it?
I remember when I first came into the senior academy there were 6 or 7 of us who had been through the junior academy together. The coaches who had been there, guys like Dec Danaher, had been in charge of us and they got promoted too and we all came through at the same time which made the transition so smooth. They were the same coaches I’d had for the last three years and the same lads I’d played alongside which definitely made the transition easier.
Then over the last couple of years it’s something that I’ve really cherished! Being able to play with guys I’ve known for a long time, you form relationships off the pitch – a lot of us live together – and I’m sure that comes across at games and on social media but you also build those relationships on the pitch, you know each other inside and out.
I’ve played a huge amount of rugby with Matt Williams, I know what he likes and doesn’t like, what he wants from me and what I need from him. Because of that I find him such an easy player to line up with. Same with Tom, Rory, Isaac and all these guys. I’ve played countless games of rugby with them at a variety of levels from professional all the way down to under 15s club games.
It’s just a really special thing for us. We have a group who have all come through together. It was a good time for the academy pathway and credit to those coaches. Kendo and Paul aren’t with us anymore but Declan is still here and now with POG, Fish, Lights and Rich (Patrick O’Grady, Jonathan Fisher, James Lightfoot-Brown and Richard Pryor) those guys put so much time into us as a group. They invested in us on and off the pitch and now we’re reaping the rewards of that.
We don’t beat around the bush; when we were 18 we won the academy league together we want to go through and win the Premiership together!
If we did it at that age group why can’t we keep our development up and eventually win the whole thing? It’s something all of us want to do and we want to do that at London Irish! It’s the club that gave us an opportunity, that brought us through together. It’s a massive part of all our lives and we don’t see a reason why we can’t do that!
I think that shows too – when you get a few of you guys, or even the guys in the years down from yourselves, on the field together the game comes alive!
Oh yeah, with Ben Loader or Ollie Hassell-Collins it’s exactly the same as with Matt. I know those guys games so well, I know what they want.
When we played Yorkshire at home in the cup the other week, we weren’t playing on all cylinders in attack and they kept blasting the breakdown. It was a scrappy game and I knew it was going to be tough for us to get a foothold but I looked up and saw a guy out of position, I know Ben Loader loves coming onto a high ball so I’ll put one up there and see what he can do. Obviously Ben’s a phenomenal athlete and he goes up, gets it and scores a great try!
That happens because me and Ben have played together a huge amount of time. I know that he can make that play, I trust him. All I have to do is get the ball up into a position he likes and I know he’ll come back down with it. That’s what you get from having played together a long time!
It’s special and it really pleases me to hear you talk about it like that. As fans we’re prone to romanticising these relationships but it’s great to hear you talk about it that way!
Before we move on from the academy, how have you found it with your brother joining you at the club this season?
Yeah, it was weird when he first came in. I found myself trying to help him all the time, make sure he was on time for meetings but he’s more than capable of looking after himself.
He’s a good player, he just needs to keep his head down, keep working hard and keep improving.
He’s had a good opportunity this year to be involved in the England under 20’s. He’s young – he’s very young, he only turned 18 during pre-season so he’s one of the youngest in his year – he’ll have another opportunity with the under 20s again next year.
He needs to basically do what I’ve done and learn off the guys in his position. Saia, Dave Porecki and Motu are really helpful with him. He’s still in a bit of transition, he’s only been playing hooker for 12, 16 months so he just needs to keep working and he’ll reap the rewards.
It was weird at first though, took a bit of time to adjust to seeing him around all the time.
He always tries to smoke me in training too which is annoying! He always tries to batter me. We had a live tackle drill once and first time up he tried to smoke me. I thought ‘I’m not having this!’ and when we came around again we got each other and I thought I’d absolutely smoke him. Les Kiss thought it was brilliant! We had 3 or 4 goes and every time the attacker just went over the top of the defender, Les was getting really excited about the intensity, like we were going to end up in a fight!
You mentioned Yorkshire there and we’re back up at their place this weekend, what are you expecting from that game?
Exactly the same! I’m expecting it to be physical and expecting them to do anything they can to spoil the party and upset our ball. They’ll come at the breakdown. Anyone who was there at the game a couple of weeks ago will have seen they like to do what they wanted to do was smash the breakdown, ruin our platform and then… little scuffles, a lot of off the ball stuff. We need to make sure we front up physically, don’t let them bully us and if things start to boil over we need to step away and not be drawn into that discipline game that brings the referee in.
We need to do what we do well, move the ball, be physical in contact and do what we do well, not be drawn into a fight.
At this time of year we can’t let you go without mentioning the St Patricks Party. As I remember it you played in the game two years ago…
Yeah, I came off the bench for a couple of minutes in my first year, when I would have been 19. It was awesome!
I’m from Berkshire and I remember going to the games as a kid, it’s a great day out and as a player those are the games you want to play in, big crowds, wonderful atmosphere and hopefully a good win to keep everyone happy!
Our sincere thanks to Jacob for his time, to the club for their support and to @RugbyLI for partnering with us to produce these interviews.