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'He came in after the game... and just apologised for a solid five, ten minutes'

By Liam Heagney

Trending on RugbyPass

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Charlie Atkinson is thankfully back in the groove and on track to finish out his breakthrough year in professional rugby with a possible age-grade Six Nations Grand Slam with England following an eventful June that had started with Wasps’ incredible record-breaking second-half come back at London Irish, a match the teenager describes as the most enjoyable of his short career so far. 

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Tonsillitis meant he missed out on his club’s Premiership finale versus Leicester, then a concussion ruled him out of England’s tournament-opening win over the France U20s. A half-hour run from the round two bench against Scotland, though, got him back in the thick of it and with a start at full-back under his belt in last Thursday’s win over Ireland, Atkinson is now poised for a resounding finish with games against Wales next Wednesday and Italy the following Tuesday still to come.

By then a month will have been spent in the same Cardiff hotel, that bubble necessary to ensure that the delayed championship could be run off at a single venue rather than have the half-dozen teams traverse about the place at a time when travel restrictions remain a headache. 

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It was 2019 when Atkinson last did anything hands-on with England, playing for their U18s, so the current groundhog day scenario isn’t going to pierce his enthusiasm and that of his Grand Slam-chasing colleagues. “There is a lot of ping-pong, Monopoly and Uno games, pretty much anything that can help us waste a bit of time, especially on a day off when we don’t any training,” said Atkinson to RugbyPass. “To be honest, I felt like time has gone quite quickly. There are lots of different ways to pass the time, getting a bit of fun in. It’s all good so far.”

The 19-year-old made 14 appearances for Wasps in the recently finished season, nine as a starter, and such was his fine first impression over the winter that he even made it into the England standby list chosen in January as the backup to their 28-strong Guinness Six Nations squad.

That acceleration was immensely pleasing, especially as it ensured Atkinson started getting spoken about for the value he was adding to Lee Blackett’s side rather than being just the teenager only known for getting flattened by the red-carded Owen Farrell last September. We all know what happened to Farrell, his resulting five-game ban denying him the chance to try and defend the Heineken Champions Cup title with Saracens but what about the 18-year-old suddenly thrust into the headlines for being on the receiving end of a juddering high shot in what was just the second Wasps appearance of his fledgling pro career?    

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Eight minutes as a sub was all Atkinson had that day in London before the shattering clatter from Farrell ended his fleeting involvement in a restarted 2019/20 campaign that culminated in a Premiership final seven weeks later for Wasps. There was no lasting angst with Farrell, though, the England skipper nipping any potential bad blood over the controversial tackle in the bud not long after the final whistle in London.   

“He came in after the game,” explained Atkinson. “Wasps had won and everyone was in the changing room celebrating and I was sat in the corner trying to hold my brain in my head. I was a bit out of it and he came into the changing room on his own, grabbed one of the coaches and said, ‘Can you grab Charlie?’

“I walked out, shook his hand, he gave me a pat on the back and just apologised for a solid five, ten minutes. Immediately I knew it was a genuine mistake and he meant nothing by it [the high tackle]. The whole time talking he spent it just apologising and convincing me it was an honest mistake. As soon as I finished that conversation.   

“I knew it was anyway. I have been watching him play since 2012 and he has been caught for his tackle technique but from what he has accomplished and I have seen other interviews of his teammates on how great a leader he is, I knew that he meant nothing by it.”

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The fallout for Atkinson was mixed, initial confinement in bed giving way to his burning desire to bounce back from his bruising top-flight introduction and show he does have the robustness to survive and thrive at the elite level. “I probably didn’t deal with it too well. I watched it [the tackle] a lot of times. I went home for about four or five days, was just in bed with a pair of sunglasses on because I was sensitive to light and I was watching the videos on YouTube and stuff.

“It put my name out there in a way I wouldn’t have hoped for but in another way, it gave an opportunity to show that I’m not just a kid that has been knocked out once and then that was it. It gave me an opportunity to let my playing style and ability show to the guys, to the other teams and coaches that I can play at that level. It wasn’t the best start to my career but it gave me an opportunity to go away for a little bit, improve on little bits, get rid of injuries and then come back in stronger.”

Atkinson’s fearlessness in the tackle was something instilled in him by his father while progressing through minis level at Oxford before he piqued the interest of the Wasps underage network who ensured he wasn’t going to be snapped up by rugby league, a sport he admits he was close at one stage to going into.

“My dad played a decent level, North of England U18s. He was always telling me stories that he was at trials with Matt Dawson, Richard Hill and stuff. He was a back-rower who probably didn’t have the pass. I remember him saying they gave him grades at the England U18 trials and for decision making, he got like a D or something.

“The defensive side comes from him. I remember when I was U9s, the first year of contact rugby, and I probably got a bit of stick from my parents for hiding away from tackles. My dad did a lot of work that summer with me and from there I have just been a back that really enjoys a bit of defence, throwing my body around and try and put some hits in.”

It’s an attitude that ensured he didn’t go unnoticed when he first pitched up at Wasps senior team training over the 2019 Christmas while on his school holidays, his leg-in-the-door moment prompting the fast track evolution that recently resulted in him signing his first full professional contract after being on academy terms throughout his breakthrough season. 

“It was something I had never really experienced before, coming into Wasps and meeting guys like Joe Launchbury, Dan Robson. (Malakai) Fekitoa was there, guys that I had grown up watching,” he said, explaining how he felt 19 months ago when first invited to start mucking in at first-team level. 

“A guy like Malakai Fekitoa who I was watching at the World Cup a few years before, to have him running full speed at me in training when I’m still at school was pretty daunting but it was similar to how I am now. I am probably quite shy off the pitch and that time at Christmas I probably didn’t speak to anyone unless they came up to me but on the pitch, kind of like I am now, I’d open up a bit more and enjoy playing rugby, really forget about that part of me that is shy and open up when I am on the pitch.

“Possibly Lee saw that and thought I could deal with playing at that level. A lot of thanks goes to him for giving me those opportunities this season and letting me play for a Wasps team I have supported since I was a kid… Before the restart, we were training in groups of six so that is when I first properly met Dan Robson, Jacob (Umaga) for the first time. I had seen them at Christmas the year before but that was the first time I had sat down and spoken to them. 

“From day one they welcomed me into the club and since then every day all the players have done their best to make me feel comfortable and anyone else that comes in new they are made to feel they are joining a big family. It’s quite easy at Wasps for new guys to fit in immediately.

“I’m really happy to have been offered a new contract and move up to the first team. I have really enjoyed my first year. I have been picked for more games than I ever would have expected. I have really enjoyed it… For me, it was always once I am on the pitch to back my skills, back my decision making and do my best to gain the respect of my teammates. That is the most important thing, having those coaches and players have trust in you.”

Scour the Wasps website, though, and it seems as if the speedy Atkinson progress has seen him slip through the cracks as there is no profile of him in either the senior or academy squads, meaning his vital statistics aren’t readily available. “I’m 88kgs,” he admitted. “When I first came into Wasps I was probably about 87. I’d say my body had changed but I’m a similar weight to how I started. 

“I see the nutritionist every time he is in and nothing has come up where the guys at Wasps think I should put more weight on or be stronger or fitter. At the moment there are no worries but it will come with growth and age. I’m still 19 so I hopefully have got a few more inches in height (he is currently 6ft) and kilograms in weight to come. It depends on the position as well. As a 10 I would say 88kgs is a good weight. Marcus Smith is less, so guys in the position are similar weight. At the moment, I’m happy with how my body is.

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A post shared by Charlie Atkinson (@charlieatkinson_)

“As a 10 if I was looking at a running game I’d look at Quade Cooper, then managing a game probably (Johnny) Sexton, guys like Dan Carter. I have tried to base my game on a number of different fly-halves to try and get the benefits out of their games and put it together and try and replicate that. 

“I would hope to say I have a mix of both (styles). We have got guys like Jimmy Gopperth and Jacob who kick really well and have a lot of experience kicking at this level. I’d say I am a 10 who can take it to the line, make late decisions and do my best to put people through holes.”

But what about Atkinson’s recent double-jobbing, his duties at out-half now extending out to full-back? “It is not too different to 10 at Wasps. In defence, we always have 10 and 15 in the backfield so I was used to doing the high balls and stuff. The only real difference is the first phase of attack and defence.

“In defence, I am already in the backfield whereas if I was 10 I’d be in the line and then in attack, I have got more of a running game than I would have at 10. I had a shaky start against Worcester but I felt a bit more comfortable in the position against Irish and Saints and I’m still enjoying it now with England U20s.”

It’s a different England call to the one last January where Atkinson thought Blackett was pulling his leg over Eddie Jones’ Six Nations standby list. “It was a big shock. I didn’t receive an email or phone call or text or anything. It was Lee who had to physically show me his phone with the email of the Wasps names that were in the main squad and the shadow squad.

“We’d training that morning and gave everyone our applause – Dan Robson, Paolo (Odogwu), Joe, Jacob and Jack (Willis). I was clapping guys and saying well done and it was only after the session a few hours later that Lee actually grabbed me and showed me his phone and asked me did you know you are picked for the shadow squad and I had absolutely no idea. 

“It was a weird way to find out. I was quite shocked. It was after my first two or three starts with the club and I thought I had played well, I thought I had a decent start to some decent game time for the club. I was very surprised but it was a very proud moment for me and my family and in a few years I will hopefully be able to get back there,” he said, explaining that his activity was limited to a weekly Zoom, multiple virus testing and the online receipt of videos and game plans.  

Online activity is generally invaluable to him. He’s an Xbox fan who enjoys playing Call of Duty and FIFA with some teammates and old school pals, but it’s also educationally useful as he is just finishing up the first year of a part-time, six-year business management course via Open University. Only when that tuition is out of the way and the England U20s have finished their campaign will he properly be able to kick back on a family trip to Devon and reflect on his incredible breakthrough year. 

“I’ve had phone calls with the coaches checking up on how I am doing in camp and they say have you actually thought how this season has gone for yourself? The answer is always no because I went from rugby to rugby, from Wasps to England 20s. There is a bit of time off coming and I will be able to sit back and think how lucky I am to have played some big games this season.” That he sure has.

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'He came in after the game... and just apologised for a solid five, ten minutes'

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