England Expects

First published in Rugby League World, Issue 387 (July 2013)

“I don’t play rugby to be popular with other fans. That’s not what I’m in it for.”

At present he is arguably the most coveted star in Rugby League. Come November, he could be the man on whose shoulders England’s hopes rests. Dave Hadfield asks Sam Tomkins about the NRL, positional switches and the importance of the World Cup.

Sam Tomkins is going. His chairman and his coach have both said he’s going. Every man and his dog in Wigan know he’s going.
And, at Loughborough preparing for the World Cup that could be his British Rugby League swansong, Sam said it too.
He’s going. The issue is when and where. “At some stage I will go. When that stage will be I don’t know,” he says. “I’ve certainly not signed anything.”
You know the script, though. The New Zealand Warriors have got the inside running. Sam’s mum and Shaun Wane’s wife have been to Auckland and the deal needs just the ratification of him being released from the remainder of his Wigan contract.
If 2013 has been the season of the Band of Burgess Brothers in the NRL, the 2014 could be time for Team Tomkins. The most highly-developed version of this theory has all three Tomkins brothers decamping to the Shaky Isles, along with Wane as coach.
Well, if you were to do that, Sam, then after a successful World Cup might be the ideal time.
“Maybe, but 12 months after a World Cup might be the ideal time as well.”
Tomkins is talking the day after another performance that underlines him importance to Wigan and England; his four tries in the Challenge Cup win at Hull KR that he called “the most satisfying of the season so far.”
Part of the reason for that satisfaction was that the team was without its regular half-backs, with Matty Smith sidelined and Blake Green forced off early.
That meant a brief return to his original stand-off role for Tomkins and I can’t help but wonder whether he ever hankers for the way you can control the game from first receiver.
“You can, yes, but there are other advantages to playing fullback,” he notes.
It was Michael Maguire who first homed in upon those advantages. “He told me he was thinking of playing me at fullback at some stage and asked me what it thought.
“At first I thought it was a step down, but I soon changed my mind about that. Now I think of halfback as somewhere I can play if needed.”
Sam isn’t the only Tomkins who has had his future career shaped by a positional switch made by the former Wigan and now South Sydney coach.
“Mags has an eye for putting a player somewhere he hasn’t necessarily played before. It was him that switched Joel from the back-row to the centres and that’s what has given him his rugby union career.”
Ah, yes, Joel. How’s he getting on?
“He’s doing really well, really enjoying it,” says his little brother. “He’s in the England squad for the summer tour, which is great progress for someone who’s only been playing the game for 18 months.
“Will he play Rugby League again? I think he will, but maybe not in this country.”
There’s an interesting answer, particularly for fans of the Team Tomkins theory. So here’s your chance, Sam, shoot it down in flames and tell me that it’s never going to happen.
He doesn’t quite do that, although he points out that Logan is under contract at Wigan – as, indeed, is he – and Joel is making progress in rugby union. It’s a nice idea, though.
Team Tomkins already has a complicated back story. The family comes from Warrington, where Joel was born. His father was in the police and moved for promotion, so Sam was born in Milton Keynes, before the family moved to Chorley and eventually, entirely for rugby reasons, to Wigan.
You couldn’t say that the Milton Keynes connection has had much effect on him; no funny accent or fear of roundabouts. “I haven’t been back since I left at three months old, although I am honorary president of Milton Keynes Wolves. I’ve helped them out with some publicity and watched some matches on the internet, but I haven’t managed to get down there yet.”
It’s all part of a new, user-friendly Sam Tomkins. On the one hand, he has been probably the individual who, over the last few years, has wound up opposition supporters the most; on the other, he is being increasingly promoted as the face of the whole sport. Love him or loathe him, he’s the one Rugby League player you can’t get away from in the media.
There was an inevitable starring role in the “Extraordinary” promotional campaign, plus the stunning chase up the mountain with Sir Bradley Wiggins.
Then there’s his growing role with Sky. His series on “Super Tries” was a good way of cutting his television teeth. More eye-catching this season has been the segment in which he has been knocking the kids from two, mutually antagonistic schools in Halifax into a Rugby League team.
It’s the sort of thing that could be really naff, but it has been carried along nicely by Tomkins’ personality and, it seems, genuine enthusiasm.
“I was nervous at first, because after 20 years of playing rugby it wasn’t something I was used to, but I’ve got more comfortable as it’s gone along.”
It has even changed some people’s opinions of him. “I’ve had some tweets from people saying ‘I didn’t like you before, but I’ve changed my mind’.”
He takes that for the compliment it is, but knows that he is never going to be everyone’s favourite. “I don’t play rugby to be popular with other fans,” he says. “That’s not what I’m in it for.”
So what is he in it for? About 12 or 14 years, he reckons, if he’s lucky. “It’s a short career and you’ve got to make the most of it. Not just financially, but in what you get to experience.”
So now, when he watches those bruising Burgess brothers doing the business for South Sydney, does he see something that he would like, in his own different way, to replicate?
“Yes, but I do when I see any top club – and they’re a top club.”
All the recent talk about his future has centred on the NRL and on the New Zealand Warriors in particular, but don’t rule out those pesky rah-rahs just yet. There’s a worryingly long pause when I ask him whether he is now more likely, when he goes, to go to the NRL rather than to rugby union.
“No… I wouldn’t want to lean one way rather than the other. Nothing’s decided yet.”
Ideally, Tomkins would like to be left to concentrate for the next six months on what he describes as “a massive season for Wigan and England.”
As a senior player and one who has captained his club this season, he takes a pride in the way that Wigan have exceeded expectations so far this campaign.
“In the media, before the start, people were tipping us to finish fifth, sixth, seventh. I don’t know where we’re going to finish, but it’s not going to be seventh.
“Other clubs talk about injuries, but we’ve had as many as anyone and young players have just stepped up.” It is a process he is confident will continue. Ask him to tip a couple of new lads on the verge of a breakthrough and he nominates Rhodri Lloyd – “the Welsh lad who’s only played a few games, but could be challenging for a place in the back row”- and Dom Manfredi. “He’s a very quick winger, who could be the next big thing. I could see him being at a gathering like this in a couple of years.”
The current England structures are one reason why Tomkins genuinely  believes that there is every chance of a home triumph in this autumn’s World Cup.
“The England set-up is much more advanced. We have a two-team mentality, with players from the England Knights able to step up,” he says.
Then there is the NRL contingent. Tomkins is a keen viewer of Premier Sports and, like the rest of us, he has been stunned by the form of George Burgess this season. “He’s going to come back here a very different player and, if he maintains that sort of form, he’s going to be pushing for a place.
“James Graham is back now, as well, and he’s a very hungry player – although that’s probably not the best word to use.
“The World Cup is a massive event for Rugby League in this country. If we could win it, it would be unbelievable. There aren’t many players who can say that and we want to be in that number.
“I’m an England player first and foremost and a Wigan player second.”
Despite that interesting order of priorities, there are still firm bonds tying the most talented British player of his generation to his club.
Tomkins admits that his relationship with Wane is stronger than that between the average player and coach, because they have come through the system together.
“My playing career has mirrored his coaching career. When I was in the under-16s he was my coach. When I was in the 18s, he was coaching the 18s. When I went full-time, he went full-time. He’s brought such passion to the job since he took over at first team level.
“He doesn’t hand out praise very freely, so, when he does praise you, you know you’ve dome something a bit special.”
So that’s simple then, isn’t it? You just take him with you, along with mum, dad and all the other Tomkinses, don’t you?
Sam isn’t falling for that one. He gives me the sort of look he might reserve for a particularly recalcitrant member of his school team in Halifax.
A look that says: “We’ll just have to see about that, won’t we?”