15 July 2022
London Irish half-back Jacob Atkins has outlined the culture being maintained by coaches in the opening weeks of training in order to build the foundations for a successful season.
Coming back into a training routine is as challenging as ever for the squad and Atkins, now in his seventh pre-season with the Exiles senior team.
Atkins nevertheless believes that a collective acceptance of the gruelling schedule in the first weeks of summer training will benefit the wider team throughout the upcoming campaign.
Being in the surroundings of Hazelwood once more has also positively changed the mentality of the squad, who are preparing well amongst an exigent opening regime accompanied by some new faces.
“The first thing is to understand that it will be tough,” Atkins expressed.
“There’s no point trying to kid yourself or rationalise things in your head that things won’t be challenging, and once you have accepted that, you can embrace it and buy into it being tough.
“There are definitely times where it isn’t nice, but you can get yourself into the mindset where you buy into the bigger picture.
“As a group when you are doing that stuff together, you can create this atmosphere where everyone is invested despite the work being hard, and it can become an enjoyable experience.
“This first block of sessions is really important for building the foundations for the season to rely on each other for the group, it’s where you build the trust and relationships with other players on the field, and you can rely on others in tough moments.
“Getting that right physically and mentally in this first bit is really important.”
Fine margins in training exercises such as the infamous ‘Bronco’ will hope to pay off when Irish aim to challenge on three fronts in the closing stages of the season, just as they did in 2021/22.
“They may seem insignificant, and in isolation maybe they do, but in the grand scheme of things when you add up the small things it’s about the group committing to what we want to be and what we want our season to look like.
“It’s making sure your foot touches the line in Bronco tests, not hold anything back and ending yourself when you are told to in a rep of training.
“For example, we have high load days and down days, with the latter being about less aerobic training.
“We have a block on our down days called a ‘resilience block’, and there is a part where you are doing some part of off-feet conditioning like battle ropes or boxing.
“The Strength and Conditioning (S&C) Coaches have made it very clear to not hold anything back and to ‘end yourself’ on that first rep and hang on.
“If we want to thrive in those moments as a group, we have to commit to what we have been told in that moment and not leave anything in the tank.”
The intricate details of the work being put in by the Irish squad has zeroed in a renewed outlook for the west Londoners as they prepare for their first Heineken Champions Cup venture in over a decade.
“In the first 20 minutes of a match, you are not worried about your energy levels in the 80th minute because the only moment in a match that matters is the one you are in.
“It might not seem that important in the moment but over time it’s about buying all of those things together as a group so you can have that as a footing going forward.
“We build trust between the players and the coaches and committing to the things we say we are going to do in the meetings on the field.”
Becoming a more experienced player as the seasons progress means that Atkins is one of few who can evaluate the continuation of practices and the advancement of others.
Asked whether much has changed in this offseason in comparisons to others, the out-half tells of the outward-looking perspective of the coaches to influence the training of the London Irish team.
“Chatting to Jonathan Fisher and James Lightfoot-Brown, it seems as though they have been on the phone all offseason, it’s like they never stop!
“Each pre-season is different, yet the coaches have still spent a lot of it on the phone to each other, speaking to coaches at other Clubs in other sports and bouncing ideas off each other.
“Every season they bring new ideas to the table and of course there are little changes to what our training sessions look like, and the structure may vary.
“But the general principle of what the pre-season is remains the same, and what we are in now is working towards is building those foundations both tactically in our rugby game and physically in our fitness and strength and conditioning.
“As we progress into the next block, we start to look at our pre-season games and more game-specific rugby focus.
“Currently, we are looking at our defensive principles, our kick-chase principles and bringing the new guys into what our attack looks like.”
New faces expand beyond signatures from overseas, with a fresh junior unit of players being welcomed as Senior Academy signings to work alongside the senior side in the pre-season.
Ollie Allan, Connor Cross, Afolabi Fasogbon, Jarlath Gleeson, Oran Murphy, Jake Shortland and Oliver Stirling were all advanced to the final stage of the Exiles’ youth structure before the start of the 2022/23 season, and Atkins credits said structure for their rapid development.
“There is a load of standout names, it feels like every year they get bigger and stronger- I definitely wasn’t in that shape at their age!” Atkins jested.
“It’s testament to the Academy’s S&C and also the Development Programme- the players coming through are athletes.
“Afolabi is a 17-year-old prop, and he is a big unit who can really move too.
“It’s early days at the moment, we are mainly looking at conditioning at the moment, but I will be really interested to see them push on as we shift focus to rugby.
“It’s great to see them working hard and pushing themselves in this first block but we might get a better idea of who the dark horses are as we progress through the pre-season.”
Having had several campaigns with Irish both as a Premiership and Championship player under his belt, Atkins may face a certain degree of leading by example amongst some of the younger talents that Irish possesses.
At just 24-years-old, Atkins isn’t owning the veteran tag just yet and instead takes stock in the progression of his class of Academy stars and the privilege it is to play with players he came up through the system with.
“I am absolutely loving being at this Club and I have been here for a while now, there is a really good core group of the team that have come with me through the Academy.
“There are guys that I have played with in my year, the year above me and the year below me that have become the core of the team over the last seven or so years, which gives me great pleasure.
“Going out and taking to the field every day with my best mates despite the changes in the Club in those seven years makes us so proud of the direction this Club is going in, and all we want to do is keep riding that and keep improving.
“The longer you are here, the more you feel attached and perhaps a little more protective you get of the Club too, so it’s nice to be in the position surrounded by guys you have come through with together.”
Previous Senior Academy graduates Henry Arundell and Will Joseph have been the contemporary success stories of Irish’s maturation of young talent, with Atkins beaming with pride when describing the England stars.
“It’s great to see Henry Arundell and Will ‘Sketch’ Joseph out there in Australia.
“We call Will that because he always looks like he is on edge and in trouble for something, he’ll walk into the food room and look like he has been told off or is about to do something he shouldn’t!
“They’re both fantastic players and they don’t need me to say that, but what is so impressive is that they both have huge amounts of natural ability.
“Their appetite to learn is incredible, they both are aware of their talent but know there are areas of their game that they can develop on.
“They are a pleasure to work and train with because they are keen to learn.”
Whilst it is unknown as to whether the ‘sketch’ nickname has stuck in the England camp, what has been acknowledged by Eddie Jones is the eagerness to learn by both Arundell and Joseph which saw them being handed their senior England debuts in each of the opening two tests of their tour of Australia.
“Both come in and ask questions from other players and James Lightfoot-Brown, they review their games and always look to improve.
“James has taken a huge lead in their early development of their career and through the Academy, and regularly works with them on a one-to-one basis.
“The coaches are very clear to them that in order for them to reach their full potential, which is being a world-class player, then this is just the start, and they will have to keep going.
“They have to keep the mindset that they can continuously improve no matter what level they get to, then the sky is the limit for them.”
Irish’s international acumen expands beyond those wearing the Rose, with 13 total players representing their respective countries in the second week of July.
Kyle Rowe and Ben White, now of Scotland renown, have also contributed to their national side’s tour of Argentina with the winger seen as a product of the London Irish way of rugby.
“His story is incredible, and it is a massive testament to our environment, that if you turn up willing to put the team first then you can fly through.
“Both him and Ben White joined us last year and have improved massively, and it’s been great to see Kyle’s turnaround considering where he was last year.
“Whitey was a fantastic, established Premiership player at Leicester Tigers and his development is also because of our environment.
“Both of those guys should be so proud of the work they put in over the last year and all of the other players in the group should be really proud seeing them out there too.”
The uptick in international representation this summer has been no coincidence, according to Atkins, with himself and the team hungry for more Premiership points and international honours.
“We take a huge amount of pride in seeing guys from our environment get opportunities at the next level because of the work we have put together as a group.
“Guys like Seán O’Brien were fundamental in building that training identity, and he made it clear we are training to get boys ready for international rugby.
“Our training standard should reflect that; it should be competitive, it should be ruthless, and it is where we made improvements in our game last year.
“If we want to make a similar leap next year, push into the top six or four teams and getting more guys in international jerseys, it all lies in taking that training another step forward.
“It’s understanding that we are not getting a session done for the sake of getting a session done, we train in order to get the boys to maximise their potential.
“Some lads will be playing international rugby so we need to maximise their potential and achieve what we think we can do as a team.”
The stirring outlook for the Club and its players will be of sound encouragement for another exciting season ahead for the Exile Nation.
Atkins played in all but one of Irish’s Premiership Rugby Cup encounters last term, but the humble playmaker isn’t focusing beyond the next few weeks in regards to setting his own objectives.
“I try not to set too many personal goals, I have been here a long time now and as well as working with the coaches, I have talked with Mike Roberts our Sports Psychologist and I believe I am at my best when I am relaxed and focus on the next thing in front of me.
“If I focus too much on goals and things I want to achieve in the future, I think it reduces the impact I can have on the thing I have in front of me and I don’t commit to it as much.
“The mindset I bring into training is to look at every day as an opportunity to improve and focus on the task at hand- I just want to go out and have a great training session, communicate well and be the best teammate I can be.
“As a rugby player, so many of the things you want to achieve in your career are not in your control, so I Just try and improve as a player and get the best out of myself and know that I have prepared as well as I could have done.
“I will be what the team needs me to be this season, which is hopefully big contributions and keeping fit, but whatever the season looks like for me I’ll attack it as best as I can.”