WHEN you are 6ft 10ins with a striking thatch of red hair on top of your head, people usually see you coming – so it was a fair old trick by Callum Atkinson to appear from nowhere to become one of the stand-out performers for Boroughmuir in the Premiership three seasons ago.
- Today’s Super6 match between Boroughmuir Bears and Southern Knights has been postponed due to the frost.
The giant second-row is a shining example of why we should not assume that all the best rugby prospects have been identified and brought into the central development system by their mid teens, because there will always be somebody out there who has somehow initially slipped through the net.
“I’m from Wilmslow in Cheshire, just south of Manchester, and I came up here to go to university [studying maths at Heriot Watt] with absolutely no rugby connection at all, and no real plans to play rugby,” he explains. “Then, in my second year at uni, I moved into a flat in Morningside – which is obviously really close to Meggetland – and the property manager we were dealing with knew one of the coaches at Boroughmuir [Andy Knight] and suggested I head along for a runabout, so I thought: Fine, let’s give it a shot.
“I went to my first training session, played one game for the 2nd XV, then they just fast-tracked me straight into the 1st XV, and it just took off from there.”
Things snowballed. Within five games for Boroughmuir, he had been picked up by the Scotland Under-20s squad (although injury prevented him from playing any matches for the age-grade side), at the end of that season he was inducted into the SRU’s academy set-up as a ‘supported’ player, not long after that he was off to South Africa to spend six months training and playing at Stellenbosch University as part of the SRU’s Macphail Scholarship programme, and by the start of the following season [2018-19] he was handed a full-time academy deal, going on to make three appearances off the bench for Edinburgh during the early part of the campaign.
“They found out that my mum’s side of the family is from Glasgow, so I am half Scottish, and it was just a wild ride – I didn’t expect any of it,” he recalls.
“I was waiting for a shoulder operation on the NHS so didn’t play any rugby in my first year at uni and my first game of adult rugby was when I pitched up and played for Boroughmuir 2nd XV, but I had played a decent level of schools rugby before – Wilmslow High School had reached the last four in the NatWest Schools Cup – and I had run the line-out then so I had a reasonable skill-set in terms of set-piece. I suppose I am quite a quick learner and when I was put into the better environments it just gave me the chance to develop.”
Then, back in February, it was made to clear to Atkinson that he wasn’t likely to be offered a new deal at Murrayfield, so, even more quickly than his rise to full-time pro level, he decided – without bitterness – to step out of it and refocus again on his maths degree.
“I kind of just took it upon myself to say: ‘Look, this isn’t really the best fit for me anymore – I think it would be best for us all if I just leave now’.
“I knew Super6 was coming up so there would be this higher level of club rugby to keep me going. Now I can still train every day but the timing is better suited to people like myself who have other commitments such as university. It is a really good fit for me at this stage of life.
“I’d taken a temporary dispensation at university for the six months I was in South Africa and for the first half of last season, so I effectively did my third year over two years, and I’m in my final year now. I’ve got exams coming up in three weeks’ time, then I’ve got my final semester and then I’m done.
No firm plans
After that, the 22-year-old is keeping his options open. “I’d be more than happy to go back into full-time rugby but I’m not sure whether that is a realistic option,” he says. “I really don’t have a clue what I’ll be offered job-wise or rugby-wise beyond this year, so it is hard to say what I am going to do. I’m open to anything, really.”
“Never once before it happened had I thought that pro rugby might be an option for me, so I’ve learned that anything is possible if you are ready to take the opportunities which come along.”
That willingness to seize the moment could come in handy if it can be replicated across the Boroughmuir Bears team this afternoon, as they look to build on last week’s tense win over Heriot’s when they take on the Southern Knights at Meggetland.
“This league is so close that in every game you have to get the same kind of intensity or you will lose,” he agrees. “You can’t even afford to have an off five minutes.”
Atkinson was named man-of-the-match at the conclusion of last Friday’s game, with his towering performance in the line-out having been a key contributing factor to keeping the Heriot’s juggernaut at bay.
“It was quite surprising, actually,” he insists. “It was nice to get it, but I think there was people who probably deserved it more than me.
“If I’m being honest, getting that first win was far more important than the man-of-the-match because it had been pretty frustrating to have really been in with a shout in the previous two games and not managed to get over the line.
“Even in the game last Friday, we came away thinking we could – and should – have played much better. It is really about imposing ourselves a bit more. We have spent a lot of time playing without the ball, soaking up pressure, so if we can manage to hold onto the ball a bit longer, and start to transfer the pressure a bit more, then I think we could be really dangerous.”
The Bears will certainly have their work cut-out this afternoon against a Southern Knights side certain to come firing out the blocks as they hunt their first win. Despite their slow start to the season, there is a lot of ability and experience spread through Borders outfit, and they are bolstered this week by the return from injury of Fraser Thomson to captain the side from full-back, while Jason Baggott and Jamie Bhatti – two Greenyards stalwarts of a few seasons ago – have been released by Edinburgh to play stand-off and loose-head prop respectively.
For the Bears, Atkinson will be joined in the second-row by David Medjebeur, who was away on international duty with Algeria last week, while Glasgow Warriors trio Johnny Matthews [a stalwart hooker at Meggetlad in recent seasons before being offered a short-term contract at Scotstoun at the start of this campaign], George Thornton [loose-head prop] and Jamie Dobie [an exciting teenage prosepect at scrum-half] will look to bring some oomph off the bench.
Boroughmuir Bears: Martin Cimprich; Cammy Gray, Archie Russell, Greg Cannie, Glen Faulds; Chris Laidlaw©, Kyle McGhie; AP McWilliam, George Shannon, Dan Winning, David Mejebeur, Callum Atkinson, Craig Keddie, Scott McGinley, Tom Drennan. Subs: Johnny Matthews, George Thornton, Martin McGinley, Ewan Stewart, Matt Walker, Jamie Dobie, Rory Arthur, Elia Zampolli.
Southern Knights: Fraser Thomson©; Ciaran Whyte, Patrick Anderson, Gavin Wood, Joseph Jenkins; Jason Baggott, Struan Hutchison; Jamie Bhatti, Russell Anderson, Conor Young, Angus Runciman, Dalton Redpath, Neil Irvine-Hess, Ruaridh Knott, Iain Moody. Subs: Fraser Renwick, Grant Shiells, Ewan Mcquillan, James Head, Harri Morris, Bruce Colvine, Thomas Galbraith, Nathan Sweeney.