Mark Atkinson Exclusive: There were moments where I thought I am not sure this will happen again

Atkinson featured in two Premiership Rugby Cup fixtures for Gloucester
©Gloucester Rugby

Reflection becomes a recurring theme when speaking to Mark Atkinson.

The 33-year-old is driving home from training as Gloucester continue their preparations for a trip to Sale Sharks, with the Cherry and Whites keen to get back to winning ways in the Gallagher Premiership.

We discuss last week's 'frustrating' defeat against Saracens, but that is just one of serveral moments where the centre casts his mind back.

This season is Atkinson's testimonial year at Gloucester but when he suffered a serious knee injury just over a year ago, this campaign may have felt like an unreachable target

"The little one [Atkinson's daughter Sydney] running onto the pitch at the end of the game, those were the moments when you are injured where I was thinking; 'I am not sure this will happen again,' Atkinson says when we reflect on his return to action last month.

"The Hartpury game [in the Premiership Rugby Cup], it wasn't the 'glamourous' comeback game but it didn't really matter to me what the comeback game was. It was just for me and my family."

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After getting 76 minutes under his belt against Hartpury, Atkinson took to Instagram to pay tribute to the team around him - including his wife Lydia - for helping him come through the biggest challenge of his career.

Since injuring his knee against Bath last October, Atkinson - who was capped by England in 2021 - has had two operations and has overcome some 'real low moments' to get back to this point.

"People always ask what is the hardest thing about being injured and I think it is definitely not being involved in the matchday preparations," Atkinson explains. "When you can't impact, can't be around the normal routine etc, that is a big part of why injuries are so challenging and why you do have those low moments."

The Cherry and Whites stalwart has also understood the importance of staying patient.

"You are always going to be frustrated when you're not playing when you deem yourself to be fit," he says. "I have been around the game now long enough to take your patience with it and listen to coaches, medical staff etc. There are a lot brighter people than me telling me what the plan is so you've just got to roll with it sometimes, put your ego to one side if you aren't picked!

"I have spoken to a lot of people who have had a similar injury, people who have retired now or they have come back from it. It is one of those things where it does take a while to make it all settle in and it is probably not as easy as saying; 'Yes, I'm back and everything is great.' 

"Olly Morgan who retired from the club unfortunately a couple of years ago, he obviously had a terrible knee injury and I spoke to him, spoke to Owen Williams who is a good friend of mine who had both of his knees done in different ways. Jonny [May] had time out with a knee injury so there are people who have had significant injuries.

"With these massive ones, nothing is ever quite the same. When you go into surgery, you never quite know what you are going in for but it is just good to talk to people, see what they have been through, see what their mindset was like when they were injured because it can be so tough."

And Atkinson's patience and persistence has been rewarded with a start against Sale on Friday. It will be his first Premiership outing in just under 13 months. "Being back in, especially this week, hoping to influence the game and how it goes, that has been a big thing for me," he adds. "It just puts a smile on your face and I am looking forward to it."

Some of his peers won't be returning this weekend though, with Cherry and Whites boss George Skivington opting to rest Gloucester's World Cup stars including Jonny May.

In a week where the winger called time on his international career, his credentials as a player are beyond dispute. Atkinson, who has played alongside May on multiple occasions, is full of admiration for England men's second-highest try-scorer of all time.

"He's been incredible," Atkinson says. "There has been a squad of players there [at England] that have been at the top of their game for an awful long time and he sort of epitomises the professionalism. That just says a lot about Jonny. 

"His preparation for himself, his preparation for his body is second to none. The way he has been able to compete with younger athletes, especially on the wing, and the amount of times he has come back when people have tried to write him off playing for England, he just always delivered. I've always been massively impressed by the way Jonny is and he is the poster boy, if you like, for getting the most out of your body as possible. He has had a hell of a career doing that!

"I think Jonny would be the first to say you can't have 30 Jonny's in a squad! He's a unique character but one you love having in your corner that's for sure."

The blend of experience with May, Atkinson et al combined with stars such as Zach Mercer and Louis-Rees Zammit, as well as some up-and-coming prospects, paints an exciting picture for Gloucester this term.

In his two appearances in the Premiership Rugby Cup, Atkinson was able to slot in alongside some of the emerging talents at Kingsholm and he believes developing depth will be important if Skivington's troops are to sustain a challenge for the top prize.

"At Gloucester, I'd say we have got some amazingly talented young boys but as talented as they are, you can't put everybody out at the same time as young and talented because they haven't seen these experiences that others may have seen," Atkinson adds.

"I am always going to bang the drum for people being able to be out there for experience because I am one of the older players in the side but I do genuinely believe it as well!

"Flip side is my two years in the academy when I was younger when I was at Sale, I played barely any rugby. I left Sale to go to Wasps and I realised I was no better leaving than I was at school. I didn't have any more game understanding or how the game moves.

"When I watch some of these young boys now who go out on loan or play Premiership Cup and they're 20 and they are breaking into the first team and they really do understand the game, it really impresses me. A lot of that comes from just playing games as youngsters and that is credit to them and the club for recognising that."

Atkinson's unwavering belief in the importance of gaining experience whether that be in the Premiership Rugby Cup, the Championship (as he did with Esher and Bedford Blues earlier in his career) or further down the English rugby pyramid shines through during this part of our conversation, and it also filters into the here and now for Gloucester.

For large portions of last term, the Cherry and Whites were in the running for a top-four finish but they were decimated by injuries which was a factor in them ending the campaign second from bottom.

"Injuries are part and parcel of the game but I think not many had as bad a season as we had last year," Atkinson says. "Everyone's goal is to be in and around the chance to win something at the end of the season. You can't do that if you lose half of your squad to the physio room. Keeping the squad fresh by picking players in different weeks is something we had to learn and hopefully now we have got the squad depth to do it. It is just a case of trusting it."

Atkinson, of course, was one of those players in the physio room last season but by his own admission, the time for reflection can now be parked as a long-awaited return to top-flight action is within reach.

After Friday's visit to former club Sale, Atkinson has his sights set on being involved against Bath on November 10th - a fixture which has been selected by Gloucester to celebrate his testimonial year - but the centre's main and current aim is to help the Cherry and Whites have a successful season.

"The club have been brilliant with me by allowing me to use the Bath fixture as my 'testimonial' game," he says. "It is obviously the biggest game for the club so I am just aligning myself to it, really. I have got an amazing team around me and they have basically said; 'Just go and play rugby. Don't think about it.' Things are happening in the background that I have no idea about but that is what I want as I can focus on my rugby!

"We are excited by the challenge of Friday night [after two wins from three matches to begin the season] and it has obviously been over a year since I last played a Premiership game so just to get back out there this weekend is a big milestone for me so I looking forward to that."

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