Nerves, emotion and tears before Challenge Cup final
A year ago Ryan Atkins rang me and asked if I could get him and his mates in to watch the Challenge Cup Final at Wembley. Now, the 24-year-old Warrington centre is back on the phone bursting with adrenalin, as he finally anticipates his first taste of the famous venue as a player, against his hometown club Leeds.
"I've never been to a final before, even as a fan," Atkins tells me after a Wolves training session he describes as "intense" just days before the 2010 final. "I wanted to come down and watch when I was with Wakefield last year but couldn't make it. This now is the biggest week of my career, it's nerve-wracking and it won't hit home that I'm playing until I walk around the stadium for the first time."
It has been some year for Atkins, leaving Wakefield with a heavy heart to sign for Warrington, the team he was seeking tickets to watch as a fan at Wembley last August, cementing his place in the Wolves side and playing a huge part in winger Chris Riley running in 25 Super League tries - both of them now in the England picture as a result.
This weekend the Leeds lad bids to deny the Rhinos a first Challenge Cup success since 1999 but admits keeping his emotions in check will not be easy. "It's hugely daunting but pressure makes diamonds," says Atkins, who admits his Wembley debut will render him like the proverbial kid in a sweetshop.
"It will be the single biggest moment of my life so far so if I don't deal with it properly the team will suffer. With the coach we have got, I know Tony (Smith) won't let that happen. If he notices I'm nervous he comes over to give me a pep talk."
It is refreshing to listen to a professional sportsman talk nerves, emotion, and tears, and Atkins tells me this single match is of real significance to him in terms of saying thank you to a leading light in his upbringing.
"Personally the big moment will be coming out of the tunnel knowing my mum is there watching. I'm guessing she will shed a few tears, I probably will too if we win. She actually cried after the semi when she knew her little boy was going to be playing at Wembley.
"She has been a big influence on my life and my career. I have two older sisters and my mum as a single parent. She never had a clue about rugby so my best mate helped by giving me lifts to training, and my mum would give me money for my subs."
Atkins tended to keep her away from games in the past as it was his only release from all the "girly" things he had to put up with at home from his mum and sisters.
Warrington's Ryan Atkins sees the Challenge Cup Final as the biggest moment of his life so far
"When I started playing at Bradford she started coming to watch and loved it, and making her proud now is my way of paying her back for all her support. She had to pay my subs and buy my big shoulder pads. They were two sizes too big so I didn't grow out of them too quickly - I looked ridiculous!
"I was only a little skinny lad at 14, with these massive pads on that didn't fit, an illuminous orange gum shield for £2.99, and these cycling shorts on underneath my shorts as I loved Paul Sterling, who wore them on the wing for Leeds."
Atkins is proud of his Leeds roots and always hoped to meet the Rhinos in the final.
"When the semi-finals were drawn most guys wanted to play Saints in the final, but I always wanted Leeds. All my family and friends are Leeds fans, I'm mates with the Rhinos boys, I was a Leeds fan growing up. My dream when I was a kid was to play at Wembley for Leeds, so playing at Wembley against Leeds is not a bad second prize."
Atkins played his amateur rugby at Stanningley RL, a terrific breeding ground of West Yorkshire rugby-league talent that also produced Rhinos forwards Jamie Jones-Buchanan, and Jamie Peacock. England captain Peacock has enjoyed an illustrious career without ever having played at Wembley, a run that continues after a knee injury ruled the 32-year-old out for six months.
"I've texted JP since his injury as I was gutted for him," says Atkins. "He looked after me at Bradford, giving me lifts to training and mentoring me, and I'd have loved to have played against him at Wembley.
"For everything he has achieved in the game, he wanted a Wembley final more than anything and missing it will devastate him. He is a great bloke and he will come back stronger."
There will be a huge Stanningley contingent at Wembley on Saturday, 99% of them wearing the blue and amber of Leeds.
"My best mate is going to sit in the middle of them wearing Wolves colours to support me but he will be the only one," says Atkins.
You only had to eavesdrop on my chat with Atkins to get an idea of just why the Challenge Cup final is the Holy Grail for anyone involved in rugby league. I could have put the phone down and wandered off after my first question and he would still have been enthusing about the wonders of Wembley had I returned five minutes later.
"Everyone has been hammering it in training this week trying to prove to Smithy that they deserve a chance," he says of the start to Wembley week.
"The boys who played last year have told me it's an amazing buzz walking around an empty Wembley on the Friday morning and then I'm told the actual standing in the tunnel waiting to come out is the most unbelievable moment in the world.
It is a very special week for Warrington and Leeds players alike. Each to a man will bust a gut in training bidding to cement their place, while at the same time hoping to avoid injury. The itineraries are dished out to the players in midweek and the final media commitments fulfilled, before the trip south. Hundreds of fans will cheer off the respective team coaches from Headingley and the Halliwell Jones, before the journeys down the M1 and M6, and arrival at their luxurious Greater-London hotels.
The traditional Friday morning Wembley walkabout allows players their first glimpse of the stadium, first sniff of the Wembley turf, and a chance to grab snaps and videos on the mobile phone. The afternoon is a nervy one before the final team dinner, and the handing out of the Cup final shirts for the chosen 17. Then it's a case of trying to get some sleep.
"Will I sleep Friday night? Probably," says Atkins. "I'll have done all my worrying by then. I'll share with Chris Riley probably and if I can't sleep I'll just talk to Lee Briers and he is a goldmine of boring anecdotes and that should send me off."