The 2021/22 season is Ben Atkins’ debut as a senior first team player at London Irish, where he plays as a hooker.
Atkins’ path to the London Irish first team was similar to those who came before him . He was picked up at a young age by Berkshire, where he got his first taste of a higher level of rugby. Atkins praised the intensity and competitiveness of the county rugby system.
He said: “playing for Berkshire was really important, it’s a good steppingstone from club rugby to then playing with the best people in your county”.
At age 16, Atkins then made the jump to the Academy Colleges & Education League (ACE), formally known as AASE, playing for St Paul’s Catholic College.
The ACE league is a hugely competitive space for players aged 16-18 to cut their teeth, and gain experience and insight into the professional game.
Speaking on this, Atkins said: “I can’t speak highly enough about the ACE programme. If you have aspirations of becoming a professional rugby player, it gives you a clear path”.
The importance of the ACE programme cannot be understated. Atkins sees it as giving players: “the opportunity to be in the shop window”.
With the current climate of the Gallagher Premiership, attracting star players from around the globe, getting noticed is perhaps the hardest thing for English academy players. But the ACE programme gives these young players a chance.
Atkins also said: “If you want an insight into what professional life is like, I think ACE shows what it can offer.”
The ACE league offers a path to those who are not able to get scouted when playing for a private school. This is where most English talent emerges from. However, ACE presents a chance for players that otherwise would not be able to showcase their skill and talent.
This is hugely important in keeping rugby inclusive to those who cannot attend a private school. ACE allows for many rugby players from working class backgrounds to progress into the professional game.
Playing With Family
Ben is not the only graduate of Irish’s ACE programme in his family. His older brother Jacob also passed through the programme and is currently in the first team squad as a fly-half.
Atkins attributes a lot of his success to his brother. “I’d seen what he did, how hard he worked, and it showed me that if you put the work in and you apply yourself in the right way you have a good chance.”
Learning From a Legend
However, looking up to your brother only gets you so far, especially when you play in a completely different position. But Atkins has not had to look far to find a mentor.
Agustin Creevy is one of the most respected and talented hookers to ever play the game. Creevy has a record 89 caps for Argentina, including 49 as captain. Atkins is loving his time playing alongside the Pumas legend.
He said: “for me personally, it’s exactly what I could ask for, it’s a dream”. Ben could not be in better hands in learning from Creevy, who has already scored five tries in the Premiership this season.
There are several challenges for any young rugby player making his way into the professional game. Atkins says that the most challenging thing is: “size! Everyone is a lot bigger, a lot stronger and a lot quicker.”
But size can only get you so far in rugby and Atkins realises this. The modern-day hooker must be powerful, mobile and be ever dependable in the set piece. He said: “being a front-rower set piece is a massive thing and it’s something I work very hard on.”
Atkins also realises that making the step up to professional rugby is difficult. The gulf in skill between academy players and seasoned professionals is huge.
He told me: “the most challenging thing is staying positive and confident because the difference in ability is massive.”
Moving in the Right Direction
However, Atkins is extremely excited about the direction London Irish are headed at the moment and how many academy players are in and around the squad.
Irish’s back three has consisted of academy products Ben Loader, Tom Parton, and Ollie Hassell-Collins for most of the season.
Atkins sees the success of these players as motivation to follow in their footsteps. “It pushes me to want to play with them. Seeing those boys do well is so encouraging to the rest of us”.
With intense fixture schedules, we are seeing more academy players given chances in all clubs throughout the Premiership.
Atkins told me: “the more English players that are playing in the Premiership every week the better for English rugby. You can pick out and see how many U23 lads there are in squads every week. It’s quite a lot”.
Although Atkins is yet to start for London Irish this season, he hopes to be in and around the matchday squads in the coming weeks.
Talking about his aspirations in five years’ time, he told me he wants: “to be playing regularly for the first team and getting wins every week.”
“We will see what happens with anything above that, but that’s my main goal for now.”