These days, people are talking about a potential England call-up but things could have turned out very differently for Mark Atkinson.
Had he not lost a game of rock, paper, scissors on a Monday morning in 2011 his destiny could have been a 9-to-5 job in the city.
Losing faith in a rugby career, he went along with his team-mate, suited and booted, to interview for a business networking job in London. It transpired there was only space for one candidate so after losing ‘scissors’ to ‘rock’ to his team-mate, he gave rugby another shot.
Gloucester’s Mark Atkinson’s rugby career could have been ended prematurely in 2011
Atkinson had already been released by Sale and Wasps but after being relegated from the Championship with Esher, his fortunes started to improve.
‘Esher were bottom of the league,’ says Atkinson. ‘We trained two nights a week. I was earning about 20 grand, which I didn’t sniff at, but I spent most of that on having a good time. Beer money, basically. Nights out on the Kings Road, Super Sundays at ‘The Church’, fancy dress. Day off? Go play golf. My family were thinking, “Surely he’ll get a real job at some point?”
‘I’d played two games for Sale as a teenager and I thought “Phwoar, I’m about to take Charlie Hodgson’s shirt here.” I deferred university, didn’t play another game and, pretending to be a fly-half, spent the rest of the season kicking the ball back to Charlie Hodgson.
The centre is hoping his performances will catch the eye of England head coach Eddie Jones
DID YOU KNOW?
As a schoolboy, Atkinson played fly-half against cricket World Cup hero Jonny Bairstow. Bairstow wore the No 10 jersey for Yorkshire, while Atkinson played for Cheshire.
‘It was bad decision after bad decision. My mates were kicking on playing for England and before I knew it I was at the bottom of the Championship.
‘With my housemate I went along to do this security job at the Olympics. We had two days’ training and I was sat there, losing my senses, thinking: “I was doing a history and philosophy degree at Manchester Uni a couple of years ago, what am I doing? This isn’t for me.”
‘Next we went for this part-time business networking job. We turned up on the Monday morning in our shirts and chinos, ready for the real world, and the bloke said he only needed one of us.
‘We played a game of rock, paper, scissors and he ended up going in. He took the job and ran with it. I could have been sat in that office. Funny how things turn out, isn’t it?’
Nine years later, Atkinson is being touted as a potential England star. His performances this season have drawn far-reaching comparisons with Sonny Bill Williams.
He left Esher for Bedford, where he converted to inside-centre, and spent time training with Saracens.
The 29-year-old English centre poses with his dog Maple while we inside their Cheltenham home. Atkinson is pictured wearing Whale of a Time Clothing
His 6ft 5in frame made him one of the biggest midfielders in English rugby and Gloucester came calling in 2014. He was signed by a Cherry and Whites regime headed up by Nigel Davies but arrived in the summer when David Humphreys and Laurie Fisher took over.
‘I had to introduce myself to the coaches on day one,’ says Atkinson, who lives in Cheltenham with his wife Lydia — the sister of former England centre Dom Waldouck —and dog Maple.
‘David and Laurie Fisher came in and worked down the massive list of players coming in: Richard Hibbard, British Lion, James Hook, British Lion. They got down to page six and saw ‘Mark Atkinson from Bedford’ down the bottom.
‘I remember them looking at this sheet thinking: “Who is this guy? No wonder they brought us in!” My first goal was to make the bench. Then you get a run in the team and your ambitions change. If someone had told me in my first season I’d be here for six years, I’d be so happy. It’s nice to feel settled.’
Now 29, Atkinson is finally regarded as a big hitter. He was called up for the Barbarians who faced England last year and scored twice in a team loaded with World Cup winners and big stars.
The Bedford-born star (right) admits he lacked focus during the early years of his career
‘I loved that week,’ he says, ‘really bought into the BaaBaas culture. They were earning 20 grand a match when I was earning 20 grand a year. We had a laugh.’
Atkinson has had a taste of Twickenham and, against the odds, is ready for more. His age makes him an outside choice for Eddie Jones’ squad, which is announced on Monday, but Sunday’s Champions Cup game in Toulouse is the perfect chance to make one final claim.
‘Just to be in the conversation is amazing,’ he says. ‘My mates sent me an article by Stuart Barnes… always did think he spoke a lot of sense! In rugby, maybe you’re not supposed to project a certain image but obviously I’d love to be involved with England. It would be a dream. You don’t really expect anything to come when you’re 29, do you?
‘Toulouse away is like a European Cup final for us. It’s a crunch game and I guess Eddie will make calls on these sort of games. It does give it a bit of added spice, doesn’t it?’
Mark Atkinson was wearing Whale of a Time Clothing while relaxing at home