By his own admission, Charlie Atkinson’s start to life in senior rugby ‘wasn’t the greatest’.
Still two months shy of his 19th birthday, the fly-half arrived from the bench in Wasps’ defeat to Sale Sharks shortly after the season resumed last August following a five-month Covid-19 enforced break. While his side lost that behind-closed-doors Ricoh Arena encounter, the young debutant emerged unscathed and in one piece.
“The first thing I did was sit down and turn my phone on,” he said. “[Wasps coach] Matt Everard actually came over to me and was like ‘the best thing to do is enjoy the moment with your teammates’ but I couldn’t really help myself, going onto my phone and seeing what my friends were saying.”
The realities of senior rugby would soon take a turn for the worse. A chapter of his life he now refers to as ‘the Farrell incident’ was just around the corner.
With games coming thick and fast to complete the 2019/20 season, Wasps sent a heavily-rotated side to the Allianz Park with hope rather than expectation to face a Saracens side preparing for a Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final showdown with Leinster.
Ten of the Saracens XV who took on a scratch Wasps side would go on to start in the victory over the Dubliners a fortnight later, but Owen Farrell was not among them.
Eight minutes after arriving onto the field for only his second senior appearance, Atkinson carried from the deep with a sea of black and red shirts before him.
Out of his eye-line, the youngster was knocked unconscious by a wild swinging forearm from the England captain which resulted in a red card and a five-game ban.
Atkinson’s afternoon and season were over as a consequence, as hundreds of thousands of people searched the internet to view the incident. The victim was among them.
“It probably sounds a bit weird but I thought it was quite a cool thing to happen,” he said. “Obviously it’s not ideal, [my] second appearance in the Prem and you get knocked out by the England captain.
“I wasn’t too put down by it. I was given a bit of time at home, I probably shouldn’t have been on my phone but I spent the whole time searching for my name on YouTube and watching the video over and over. So I probably didn’t deal with it the best way.”
After receiving his marching orders, Farrell waited patiently by the sidelines to shake the hand of a man ten years his junior.
“Owen came into the changing rooms after the game I don’t really remember too much because I was still a bit out of it, I remember speaking to him and shaking hands,” he said. “The last thing I remember is him walking away after he’s apologised and you could tell by the way he was walking he was genuinely upset by and it was a genuine mistake.”
Saracens, who were priced as overwhelming 1/50 favourites to win that match, went on to lose 28-18 with Farrell off the pitch. Atkinson would not return to Wasps action for another 12 weeks, coming off the bench in the 40-24 defeat to Gloucester in the second round of the current campaign.
“I didn’t have the best game, but I wasn’t affected by what happened before,” said the England U18 and U20 international. “It wasn’t in the back of my mind or anything. I was happy to get the game over with and know I can still play and not have that in the back of my mind the whole time.”
With the Farrell incident behind him, Atkinson marked both his first Premiership and Heineken Champions Cup starts with tries against Sale Sharks and Montpellier before impressing off the bench against Exeter Chiefs in Wasps’ comprehensive 34-5 Ricoh Arena win on January 2.
It was Wasps’ penultimate game before England’s Six Nations squad was announced which saw Paolo Odogwu, Dan Robson and Joe Launchbury named in the 28-man group.
Despite having just three senior starts to his name, Atkinson was included in a 12-man shadow squad that included his Wasps teammates Jacob Umaga and Jack Willis.
There was no fairytale moment to inform Atkinson of the news. No phone call from England head coach Eddie Jones, no inclusion in a WhatsApp group with illustrious company. Instead, it was a tap on the shoulder from club boss, Lee Blackett.
“We had a captain’s run at the Ricoh,” he said. “We were in a huddle, we gave Dan Robson, [Joe] Launchbury, Paolo [Odogwu] some applause for getting selected. Then they mentioned Jacob [Umaga] and Jack Willis in the shadow squad and there was no other mention.
“I was part of the team, clapping them, going up and congratulating them.
“We had a meeting in one of the theatre rooms in the Ricoh. I was tucking into a bacon sandwich, he called me over and he was like ‘you know you’re in the back-up squad for the England Six Nations?’.
“I had absolutely no idea. Lee showed me his phone with my name next to Jacob’s and Jack’s. It was a massive shock, again I was straight on my phone telling my parents. It was a weird way to find out.”
Atkinson remained on standby through the competition as his country’s fly-halves, including the aforementioned Farrell, remained in one piece during England’s ill-fated campaign.
There was to be no trip to The Lensbury to sample the England experience, no reunion with Farrell or Red Rose stash to put over his young shoulders. Stringent Covid-19 measures ensured Atkinson’s first senior call-up was a remote experience, with the glamour firmly stripped away.
“I’ve still not spoken to Eddie Jones,” smiled Atkinson. “We got sent videos of training, we know all the details for setpiece moves and stuff. Basically the tactics for the game coming up that weekend. Other than that, it was an early morning Covid test once or twice a week on a Zoom call with the Northampton boys and some of the Bath boys. Other than that I wasn’t involved too much.”
Atkinson has gone on to amass 15 Wasps appearances, with Blackett preferring the youngster to former All Blacks international Lima Sopoaga – whose tumultuous three-year stay in England looks set to ender with a whimper having made just one substitute appearance in the past 13 games.
In Umaga and Atkinson, according to Blackett, ‘Wasps have their two fly-halves for hopefully the next ten years’, something that was backed up this week as the club announced Atkinson had signed a new deal and was promoted into the senior squad.
If selected to face Northampton Saints this weekend, his family could get the first opportunity to see him play rugby since he was a member of the Wasps U18 Academy.
“Obviously the start wasn’t the greatest, the beginning of my career for someone my age, the Farrell incident,” Atkinson said, reflecting on the nine months that have passed since making his senior Wasps debut. “But this season has been completely different.
“I could say I was quite lucky with other players having injuries or having to be rested for game management. I was actually getting the opportunity to start against the Dragons in the Heineken Champions Cup. Getting those experiences this early on has definitely helped me massively. I feel like I can use those experiences for the next coming years as a Wasps player.”
Atkinson’s season may not end upon the conclusion of the Gallagher Premiership regular season on June 12. England will host the USA at Twickenham Stadium on July 4 and Canada six days later, without their 10 British and Irish Lions – including you know who. Before those capped Tests, England and Scotland will meet in an ‘A’ fixture at Mattioli Woods Welford Road on Sunday, June 27.
That first conversation with the England head coach could be tantalisingly on the horizon.
“Ever since I was a boy I wanted to represent my country,” he said. “It would be the proudest day of my life if I was ever picked for that. But there’s no rush, I am just focusing on improving personally and helping the team at Wasps improve as well. All the focus is on the team, day by day, but that would be the ultimate goal.”