Their first season back in the top flight after earning promotion in 2017, Chris Atkin and Hull Kingston Rovers have experienced a challenging campaign which, eventually, ended with the club falling short of a top eight spot leaving the club facing their fourth consecutive campaign in The Qualifiers and, with it, a fight to hold onto their Super League status.
Nevertheless, their final league game before the split saw them triumph over their local neighbours on their own patch, something the 25-year-old Lancastrian was chuffed with. “It was the first win over Hull FC in seven or eight games for us so it’s been a long time coming,” he told Get ’em Onside. “In the build up to the game there was a few people saying it was a dead rubber but there’s never a dead rubber derby match. We wanted to put a big performance in after losing the week before as did they but we edged it.” Indeed, after racing into a 16-0 half time lead, the Robins had to work hard to close the game out 20-16 after a stirring second half from their Airlie Bird hosts. Right from the start, Atkin and his KR teammates were at the races, indicated by the game’s opening kick which, after the former Swinton star punted downfield, two KR shirts raced forward to trap Jamie Shaul. “Before the game, Tim had spoken to us half backs about how good our kicking game would have to be. He was happy for us to kick early and put the pressure on their try line and that really suits my game,” Atkin explained. “Coaches talk about the first kick chase in a game and Maurice led that chase to make the initial contact before Crooksy got the opportunity to fold Shaul back over the line. It set the tone, really, and we all sort of followed it. The kick chase makes a kick a good or bad one.”
With both teams’ league positions finalised before the last weekend of the main season, there was nothing more than pride and bragging rights riding on the game’s outcome but, despite Atkin alluding to suggestions he had heard that the game didn’t matter, his view couldn’t have been more to the contrary. “Some people were suggesting that the game was a bit of a dead rubber but a derby never is. The fans get up for the game,” he explained, adding that it’s important for the players to reward the fans in matches like that. “I’ve heard some people say that it was one of the best derbies for a while and, even with the conditions which were shocking, we got the two points. We adapted quite well to the conditions and did well to hold on in the end,” he further remarked.
Now, the Craven Park club face a fight to hold onto their top tier status but, despite an inconsistent and disappointing campaign, Atkin is confident that the team’s experience of the stage in previous years will stand them in good stead. “The majority of the squad got us promoted last year so we’ve obviously been through this stage before. We will be prepared and we know we have to be better than we were last year but, at the same time, we know the scenarios and we know we have to approach it week by week,” he articulated. “It’s semi-final football and, as Tim says to us, we have to take each game as it comes. It’s about focusing on the first game against Salford and, after that, we will be focusing on the trip to Toronto. I think we’ve recruited well through the year [Joel Tomkins, Todd Carney, Ben Crooks and Craig Hall, for example] after possibly having been a bit light in certain areas,” Atkin, one of Rovers’ leading players for try assists this year, added.
While the club have been through the process of The Qualifiers before – experiencing both relegation and promotion – the half back admits there is a touch more pressure on the East Yorkshiremen this year compared to last. “We’re under a bit more pressure this year as we are a Super League team trying to stay in there while last year we were a team pushing for promotion,” he put across. “We are going into it with the same sort of approach as last season where we believe we can be the best team in The Qualifiers and, after that win over Hull FC and pushing Warrington close, we will go into it believing we can beat any side.” He is also aware of the strength in the teams they will be facing from the Championship, aware that any complacency could be fatal for the Robins. “All the sides this year, especially in the Championship, fully deserve to be in The Qualifiers with how close that league has been. It’s really exciting, I suppose, for the neutral looking at them as being more exciting probably than the top eight.
When Get ’em Onside met Atkin’s Hull KR skipper Shaun Lunt earlier this year, the Cumbrian was clear that the club’s aim was to finish in the top eight – an aim that the club has fallen just short of. In what has no doubt been a challenging year for Tim Sheens’ men, Atkin believes that the issues presented by injuries had a big say in their tenth place finish. “Injuries have played a part I think. A lot of sides have struggled with them this year,” he admitted, keen, though, to not use them as an excuse. “I think we’ve found it hard with who we have lost. We lost Danny Addy before the season started which hit us and we’ve seen people like Maurice Blair covering all over the park,” the Australian – despite being hit with a ban following their derby win – being one of the Hull club’s key players this year. “Losing the experience and quality of Shaun Lunt and Danny McGuire for long periods was huge for us, to be honest. Myself and Matty Marsh, as the two half backs after Danny, are both quite inexperienced and it was hard to have that pressure on us.” A player keen, though, to talk positively, the ex-England students international expressed his joy at playing alongside a former St Helens full back in East Hull. “One huge positive for us, though, has been Adam Quinlan. When we play well, it tends to be in the games where he has had an impact and he is such an important player for us.
Two players who head coach Sheens would have been hoping would be central to Rovers’ top flight return this year – and two players who Atkin outlined as being key for the team – were the experienced Super League campaigners Shaun Lunt and Danny McGuire, the former of whom the club captain since 2017 while the latter being a 2018 arrival and one fresh from yet another Grand Final triumph with Leeds. While the pair, as has been said previously, have missed large parts of the season, their influence hasn’t been lost on Atkin. “It’s crazy how influential they are and how comfortably they help you through things,” Atkin revealed, speaking of the impact training alongside the pair has had on his game. “Their leadership and calmness is incredible. Sometimes a younger player can put himself under pressure all the time but they know that not every pass or every kick is going to be perfect – they know that mistakes or errors happen because we are in key positions. They’re always there checking in and they are both huge players for us.” Indeed, the influence of Lunt will have had increased benefit with Atkin having moved into the hooking berth at times in 2018, partially due to his more experienced colleague’s absences. “It was unfamiliar at first but I’ve enjoyed it,” he smiled. “It was tough to get my head around it initially but I was just happy to be playing, I think I’ve only missed one game this season and, after only joining last year, that’s great for me – it’s all about game time for me at the moment and learning.” Another person involved in rugby league who speaks highly of Australian coach Tim Sheens, Atkin added that “Tim approaches these things in the right way and it wasn’t just him telling me that I was going to be playing at hooker one week. It was a few conversations early in the week before doing much training on the field where he explains what he is thinking about and, after training, everyone was happy to give it a go.”
Having initially started playing in the role in the Spring, the Widnes-born pivot told of the benefit he feels he has at dummy half having played his whole career before as a half-back. “It’s nice to be involved in pretty much every play! As a half back, I know what service I would want and where the ball should be going so I think that helps me when I’m in at hooker. Tim likes the kicking game out of dummy half which, I suppose, is another reason for it,” he explained. While he has impressed in the role through the campaign, he still sees himself as a half back and, while all positions on a rugby league pitch involve high intensity and energy, he admits that the extra work in the middle of the field was a bit of a shock to him. “To go from half back where you are moving constantly but you’re not going backwards and forwards in every tackle and getting hit all the time up the middle… that was challenging!
It has been a remarkable rise for Atkin who, as recently as July 2017, was playing for Swinton Lions in the second tier. Having initially signed for KR to join for 2018, the financial troubles of the Championship club saw that deal brought forward and Atkin moved east for the end of last season. A man who was clearly happy at the club he made a century of appearances for, he admitted that the financial hardships of the Lions made it slightly easier for him to leave. “I wasn’t ready to leave Swinton in the difficult position. Things then, though, started to change off the field and in the background and it things were a lot worse than they initially seemed,” he divulged. “It turned out that I could help Hull KR with their injury problems while the transfer fee helped Swinton’s financial situation. I was obviously gutted to be leaving in those circumstances but, for me, it made the transition to 2018 better after getting a few games under my belt last year for KR.”
Such has been his rapid rise to a Super League regular, it’s perhaps unsurprising to note that Atkin is a man with his feet on the ground. Indeed, he is a man who wasn’t sure he would get a Super League opportunity after being released by Widnes. “If someone had told me at 19 or 20, when I was just playing at university, that I was going to play a hundred games for a club like Swinton Lions, with their history, I wouldn’t have believed them to be honest,” he acknowledged.“I’ve got to thank the coaching staff and the club as a whole for giving me that opportunity and the belief that I could play professional rugby league.” Continuing, he added that “truthfully, in the back of my mind, I thought I might get the chance to play full time rugby but, if somebody had asked me at university where I saw myself in two years time, I wouldn’t have said playing for a team like Hull KR. That was obviously an end goal but I kept that to myself and my family I guess. If the opportunity never came up [to play Super League] and the Championship was my level I would have held my hands up and I’d have given everything to that. It was thanks to my parents really that I kept my studies going.
It could, perhaps, have been different for Atkin had reserve grade existed but his release from the Vikings came at a time when the age-restricted competition replaced the reserves competition and, with Tom Gilmore and Danny Craven ahead of him in the Widnes pecking order, he could have been lost to the game.It was only at university, where he studied in Liverpool to become a teacher, when he took the sport up again and he believes that a link between educational settings and professional clubs could be a way forward if the reserve grade proves too difficult to re-introduce. “More clubs could possibly get links with universities like we do with the University of Hull.” Explaining further, he added that “Warrington have something with the University of Chester and I think that if more clubs can provide alternative routes for players whether it is to go on loan for a season to play part time while getting a job, for example, it would provide different options for younger players.”
Atkin is fortunate to have a teaching qualification to fall back on should he wish to once his rugby league career comes to an end but, instead of thinking about that, he now has the distinct possibility of starring for the England Knights at season’s end thanks to being included in the team’s train on squad. “It was a massive shock really,” KR’s number 24 said of the moment he found out. “Paul Anderson rang me one day when I was just sat at home after training – it was an unknown number and sometimes I might not have answered!” he joked. “He introduced himself and said why he was calling and, I’ll be honest, I was speechless for a while after. To go from being at Swinton last year to making my Super League debut and to then get the England Knights call was pretty amazing, it topped everything off really. I had a huge smile on my face for the days after.” As has been discussed previously, there is a clear view that the Knights squad isn’t to be viewed as a ‘B’ team and is instead packed of young prospects who, it is hoped, will go on to form the nucleus of future England squads. “When we sat down as a group and when Paul rang they all explained that it wasn’t a ‘B’ team as such and it was a view with being a young team moving towards the 2021 World Cup,” Atkin added. “They spoke to us about statistics of how many players had gone on from the Knights to make full international caps… they see it as a massive part of the England squad going forward now and we have a lot of very good youngsters in Super League right now; Jack Walker at Leeds, Danny Walker, the hooker at Widnes, and Danny Richardson just to mention three. It seems like there is a clear plan in place to bring the youngsters through which is great for people like me.”
This winter, the Knights will be heading to Papua New Guinea who, after hosting a clutch of matches at last year’s World Cup, will see England’s youngsters play two games in the country where rugby league is the national sport and the trip is one Atkin is keen to be involved in. “I’m buzzing to be honest. I was fortunate enough to go to South Africa with Great Britain students a few years back and it was an incredible place to go and it’s definitely one of the best trips I’ve been on – hopefully Papua New Guinea will be the same.” Continuing, he added that the reviews of some players who played there during the World Cup only went to increase his excitement. “They all said it was surreal and an unreal experience. I think it’s going to challenge whoever does go,” he said, aware that the squad that was updated last month is by no means a guarantee of being on the place to the southern hemisphere. “I have to make sure I keep my performance level up to get selected to go but, for the squad that does go, it will be a real test. It’ll be a huge mental challenge which will prepare us for international level and, while it will certainly be different from playing somewhere like Australia, it’ll be a challenge which will stand us in good stead for the future.”
Before that, though, KR have a battle on to hold onto their hard fought Super League status, a battle which will include two unenviable trips to Toronto and Toulouse. However, a reflective Atkin explained that wasn’t causing the Robins any undue stress. “They are exciting trips to go on. It might be easier to face them at home but they are a good team anyway.” Demonstrating an awareness of just how dangerous the Canadians and Frenchmen could be, he added that “they’ve earned respect and going over there will be tough but I’m really looking forward to the experience of going over to face them. I think it’s a unique thing rugby league has that most other sports don’t, that we are going to these different places to play big games.”
In what has been a strong maiden Super League campaign for Atkin, he is understandably keen to ensure he does all he can to see KR retain their Super League status for 2019. “Finishing strong with Hull KR right now is my priority,” he explained. “I said that to Tim and Paul as well. I can’t worry about the Knights too much right now as there is still a lot of rugby to play. I have to make sure that I am playing well. If I do that, it should mean we are doing well as a team and that would hopefully get me into the squad. I’m constantly looking to improve my game and to take each game as it comes.”
With that attitude, the man who is proving to be highly rated by the KR faithful will not go far wrong and, should he and KR pass through The Qualifiers unscathed, it is certainly an off season which promises to be an exciting one for Atkin.
“Finishing strong with Hull KR right now is my priority,” he explained. “I said that to Tim and Paul as well. I can’t worry about the Knights too much right now as there is still a lot of rugby to play. I have to make sure that I am playing well. If I do that, it should mean we are doing well as a team and that would hopefully get me into the squad. I’m constantly looking to improve my game and to take each game as it comes.