Geelong's Tom Atkins (Image: Geelong Cats; Design: Will Cuckson)

Tom Atkins has risen from being a hero of Geelong’s local leagues to becoming a vital member of the Cats’ midfield. He spoke to The Inner Sanctum on the eve of his fourth finals campaign.

Atkins has been a regular presence in Geelong’s side since making his senior debut in 2019. The former St Joseph’s player follows in the footsteps of Jimmy Bartel, Cameron Ling and Gary Ablett Junior as a Geelong local who is now essential to the side’s engine room.

If the next month goes as planned, he may join them as a Cats legend.

Geelong’s return to premiership contention has been on the back of an improved season from Atkins. Alongside Zach Guthrie and Brad Close, Tom Atkins has risen from useful utility to genuine star of the side.

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His journey is one of persistence. Atkins was the captain of Geelong’s VFL side when he was overlooked in the 2017 AFL draft. Two years later he was rookie listed by the Cats. Over the past three seasons he has emerged as a key member of Geelong’s midfield.

After three years of successive finals, Atkins is excited on the eve of his fourth.

“Excited,” is how he described the feeling to The Inner Sanctum.

“I think it’s been a long build up this season.

“We had the weekend off so now we’re getting into training and it’s all starting to feel real that this weekend will be finals.”

As a town, Geelong feels different in September. The entire community is involved in the build-up to finals. Decorations begin to adorn shop windows like a Cats themed Christmas and scarves are worn everywhere despite the springtime heat.

Atkins knows that it is like from the outside, now he gets to experience it as a player.

Atkins played in last season’s losing Preliminary Final and the 2020 Grand Final defeat to Richmond. After two campaigns interstate, he is pleased to be back on home turf, which this weekend is the MCG.

“It feels awesome. The uptake of tickets this week by Geelong members has been astronomical. Being able to run out in front of them compared to playing over at Optus stadium in front of almost no Geelong people, it’s going to be a big change so, really looking forward to it.

“It’s just awesome to be around family as well, getting home from training and seeing your partner. Just little stuff like that its going to make a big difference.”

Moving to midfield

After beginning life on an AFL list as a forward, Atkins was moved to defence in 2021. His ball winning ability, physicality and determined tackling saw him move back to the position he dominated the VFL in for 2022.

As part of a new look Geelong midfield, Atkins has been crucial. Going into Round 23, he ranked 10th in the league for total pressure acts, and eighth for total tackles. When Geelong beat Richmond by three points in Round 15, it was Atkins’ clearance that led to the winning goal.

Against a team as relentless as the Magpies, that trademark determination and ferocity will be essential to a Cats win.

“It definitely was not a long term plan,” he said of his emergence as an AFL midfielder.  

“It’s just where I’ve been required, or where I fit into the 23 this year, if we’ve needed a bit of pressure in the midfield.

“I’ve been happy to play where the team needs me. Luckily we’ve had a bit of success with that, hopefully that continues into finals.”

That is understating things slightly. “A bit of success” has been 14 wins in a row and a top place finish. Cats fans have been basking in the teams form, but inside the club, all eyes are on the challenge ahead.

“We don’t really think about it. A couple of times this year someone has said ‘you’ve won 10 in as row’ and you think ‘oh have we?’

“You’re just so focused on the actual specifics of what you’re doing on the ground that it becomes a bit lost what you’ve done eight weeks ago.

“We were happy that we were able to put points on the board and secure the top spot, but it doesn’t really mean anything now.

“We’ve got the double chance, now we need to go into the finals with a fresh slate and play well.”

‘Everyone’s got a role to play’

Geelong made the Preliminary Final in 2021, and lost to eventual premiers Melbourne. But it was a much less convincing season than the current one. They finished fourth after an inconsistent end, but this year have looked a much more complete side.

“I think everyone who is playing has gone to another level,” says Atkins

“Maybe we’re having a bit more of a team first mentality.

“I know in the midfield it’s been really led by Grigga (assistant coach Shaun Grigg), that sort of grind-type mentality.

“Everyone’s got a role to play and perhaps that been the change.”

It is a sentiment echoed by the All Australian captain Tom Hawkins.

“There’s been some wonderful growth in certain individuals,” Hawkins told the media

“But right across the board, the growth isn’t just restricted to those in the 22 or 23. There’s been wonderful growth right across our whole list. That goes from players to our coaching staff who have done a wonderful job.

“There’s a lot of factors in why we’ve been able to play well for the last 13-14 weeks.

“I clearly know as a player know how hard premierships are to win.

“We keep fronting up, we do the work to get ourselves in the position and we give ourselves another opportunity. That’s what we’re excited about.

“There’s ultimately going to be one winner in five weeks.

“We hope that’s us and we believe that our best football is certainly well and truly good enough. There’s three, potentially four games to worry about before then.”

For Tom Atkins, the focus is on the immediate future. But as he prepares to step on to the MCG to face a fiercely in-form Collingwood, its amazing to look back at how far he has come so quickly.

“You’re playing against bigger bodies, its faster paced, there’s cleaner skills, less margin for error. That sort of stuff,” Atkins says of the step up to AFL level.

“I think the last season I played in the midfield, I was against Port Melbourne in the VFL, and this week I’ll probably end up on Scott Pendlebury. That’s probably the biggest difference.”

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