This is an extract. The full interview appears in this month’s (March 2023) issue of the Rugby Journal – get your hands on a copy by ordering it at www.therugbyjournal.com
Back in 2011, Mark Atkinson was sat in a changing room in Esher, Surrey, looking at the players alongside him. His team sat at the bottom of the Championship table, a team he’d found after tumbling out of two Premiership clubs. He was experiencing what many would refer to as an epiphany. There are times in life when something inside suddenly makes a lot of sense. A time when, if you are honest with yourself, you realise you’ve been doing things wrong.
“My spells at Sale and Wasps had gone very badly,” begins the Gloucester centre. “I mean, I didn’t know that when I was experiencing them but as I sat there in that changing room at Molesey Road, I was putting things together. If I was being truthful: I hadn’t done what I should have, what I could have; I’d done what I thought was the right thing to do, but I’d missed huge opportunities; I’d let a few people down. I thought of my parents who had travelled around the country, following my career as well as they could, and I looked at the players in the same shirt as I was in; the way they were approaching playing rugby. The way it was everything to them but really the way they were balancing other jobs, working hard away from professional rugby, training just Tuesday and Thursday nights, and then filling the rest of their working week with things that weren’t rugby; that scared me. I feared what would happen next step unless I changed. I was still just about young enough to do something about it. So, I did.”
Atkinson’s Merseyside accent still crackles along the Gloucestershire pavements. Born in Knowlsley and having been brought up in Cheshire, his North Western roots make him naturally amenable and talkative. He isn’t keen on talking about himself, mind. Our discussion is littered with self-deprecation. His humility is also struggling with walking the streets of Gloucester and having his photo taken. The Cherry and Whites centre is never too far from taking the mickey out of himself, so being the centre of a camera’s attention in such a public way is uncomfortable.
To know Atkinson, you have to know how good he is with other people: for him, making other people happy is the noblest art. From an early age, social communication has been something he’s loved and excelled at. School was a joy: St Ambrose in Altrincham, a Christian Brothers’ Roman Catholic boys’ grammar school (the same school that, amongst others, Raffi Quirke attended) endured his formative years. He could have done better at school, he admits, but he was a bit too busy having a good time. Rugby was his sport from the age of twelve, when he chose to follow the oval ball rather than the round one, and he was playing first XV rugby by Year 11: Sale’s Academy was easily interested.
“I remember being asked to play in an inter-squad game at Edgeley Park. I wasn’t much older than 17, I don’t think, and I was full of confidence. I came on at fullback and a passage of play allowed me to make a monstrous hit on Ben Foden. And if you know me, you’ll realise that many things would have to go right for this to happen. But anyway, I remember laying out Fodes and the crowd going wild. It wasn’t a particularly big crowd, maybe a thousand, more than I’d ever played in front of and I heard their reaction. I remember thinking there and then that I wanted more. I thought I’d made it and I just needed to carry on doing things like that.”
“Don’t get bogged down in circumstances: have a vision for yourself
and where you want to go.”
So he tried. Being a young professional rugby player is fun. He made friends with everyone. He was enticed out on socials; encouraged to party, to enjoy Manchester, enjoy the spoils of being paid to play sport. It was an environment he relished. But his rugby suffered. His fitness wasn’t full; his skills lacked the finesse of someone going the extra mile. He was tired, often out late the night before, something was missing out on the field. The opportunities diminished. Tough conversations with the coaching staff loomed and before he really had time to consider it all, he was let go. But another top club came knocking.
“Wasps was the same. I’d gotten a second chance and I didn’t take it.” He speaks with the wince of a man relaying how things have slipped through his grasp. “Senior players were doing things that looked good fun and I thought that was what I should do. Those who’d established themselves, acting in a certain way and, stupidly, I followed them.”
History repeated itself. He didn’t push himself in training, comfort was the enemy of progress. He played second-team games, fixtures on back fields, with distant changing rooms. Once again, he was passed over. The Championship beckoned. But it wasn’t with any of the top sides. Crucially, however, Atkinson and Esher would play some of those top sides. Maybe, if he got his mindset right, he could make an impression.
Back in the Esher changing room, Atkinson made a vow to himself and set about rewriting the stars. He had also met a girl, about whom he was very serious. She deserved better than windswept, rain-soaked away games at the bottom of the nation’s second tier. Her brother was Wasps and England star Dominic Waldouck for goodness sake. He needed a way back…
The full 3,000-word article (with fantastic photography) is available in this month’s edition of the Rugby Journal – get your hands on a copy to learn about the whole journey.