Sam Tomkins was the Steve Prescott Man Of Steel in 2021.
His incredible resurgence and return to the top of the game, nine years after first winning the award as a coltish young sensation at Wigan Warriors, was the story of last season.
It was a story that ran until the final moments of THAT Grand Final, when he was penalised in the closing stages and dropped to his knees in frustration and agony as the hooter blew.
It was a whirlwind season, full of incredible match-winning performances and a late-season injury drama that almost cost him a place at Old Trafford.
After such a demanding year, you would think Tomkins would now be on a beach in the Indian Ocean or walking his dogs in the hills of the Pyrénées. But not a bit of it.
Our man in the south of France, Steve Brady, caught up with Monsieur Tomkins at a wet and windy training session at Cabestany near Perpignan, stretching those famous tattoos and preparing for another season ahead.
SB: Sam, do you ever tire of pre-season; will you ever be tempted to do a James Maloney and step down a level?
ST: “No chance, I’m back to my normality now, we’ve all had a good seven weeks off, I’ve spent a lot of time with my family and I feel fully refreshed.
“I’m nowhere near ready to do a Jimmy Maloney. I don’t find this year any harder than any other pre-season. You get accustomed to them; you know what to expect and they never fail to deliver.
“You work as hard as you possibly can, get home and sleep a lot.”
SB: Have you recovered from the injury that almost cost you a place at Old Trafford?
ST: “I didn’t do any more damage to the knee by playing in the Grand Final; I’m back to running now but I did need six or seven weeks of rest.
“It’s 100 per cent now and thankfully there wasn’t any more damage caused by playing in the final.”
SB: Are there any mental scars from the final? I don’t think I have ever seen you as angry or frustrated as you were in those closing stages, especially when that penalty at the play-the-ball was given against you.
ST: “I’m over that, it’s a while ago now.
“It’s difficult when you get a decision against you that you don’t think is right. It’s frustrating but it’s not something I dwell on and at the same time it isn’t the reason we lost the Grand Final.
“There were other areas in that game that could have won it for us, so it would be wrong for me to dwell on one penalty. That didn’t define our season and looking back doesn’t help anyone.”
SB: I see Michael McIlorum is leading the way once again in pre-season, winning all the shuttle-runs and stamina tests. Is he superhuman or are all the other players afraid of overtaking him?
ST: “I don’t think anyone’s scared of him; they just can’t catch him. Micky is unique; he can run forever; he’s got a special engine.
“I don’t know another player who could have seven weeks off and then win all of the fitness tests without breaking a sweat. I think it’s because he has such a strong mental resilience.”
SB: It’s so good to see so many young French faces in this year’s pre-season training group.
ST: “Last year was pretty successful and a big part of that was the way that when the French kids were asked to step in, they didn’t just do a job or fill a gap, they had a real impact upon the team and that was a massive boost to the side.
“Now these kids are one year older and a whole lot wiser; they got a taste of it last year and the vast majority of our entire squad has got some first-team experience, some a lot of it.
“They are in a lot better position now to kick on with their careers than they were last year. You can train as much as you like but you can never replicate Super League experience.
“They all know now the speed and the physicality of the game and there will be no surprises when they are called up next time.”
SB: Arthur Mourgue is at his irrepressible best at training; do you think he is eyeing up your shirt?
ST: “Arthur’s been brilliant for us, but I’m trying to help him transition into a number nine. I keep telling him to stay up in the middle and just let me do the fullback work.
“He can help Micky out with all of the forwards.”
SB: Three Australians are heading to Perpignan next month (Mitchell Pearce, Dylan Napa and Tyrone May). What will they bring to the Dragons?
ST: “Last year we were pretty good and a few players have left since then, so it was important that any replacements should improve the side.
“After such a good season it was crucial that we invested, and I know every team is doing the same, but Mitchell Pearce coming in is huge for us.
“In Jimmy (Maloney) we had one of the most talented and experienced halves in the game and it’s almost like we’ve got a younger version of that now in Mitchell.
“We lost Joel and Dylan Napa will now be in our middles and Jason Baitieri used to be brilliant for us in several positions but Tyrone May can play back row, centre, halves, anywhere.
“Each one of our new signings have been selected for specific roles and I think they have the capacity to give us something extra special next year.”
SB: What is the mood in the playing group?
ST: “We’re desperate to get ourselves back into the same position, with a chance to win a Grand Final.
“It was a massive occasion for the club and we could all feel it.
“We want another build-up with all of the fanfare. What happened in Perpignan on that incredible semi-final night was pretty special.
“Once you’ve been to a Grand Final you need to get back there again as soon as possible.
“We’ve got the first one out of the way now and hopefully it will put us in better stead next time to turn that two-point defeat into a two-point win.”
SB: We saw a capacity attendance at the season-launch party in Perpignan and record figures for sponsorship and commercial activity at the club have just been announced. What impact has last season had on the profile of the Dragons?
ST: “Everybody wants to follow a successful team and last year was fantastic for us, so it’s inevitable that there will be some bounce-back with increased support and sponsorship.
“The real task now is to build upon that, it’s brilliant that we are attracting more interest and making a noise in France.
“We want to be a big club. When you look at some of the more established big names and the amount of support they get, the shirts they sell and the big-name sponsors they attract, that’s where we want to be.
“We’re not one of the big names in Super League yet. You have to do it year on year to be thought of as a big club and, while we are at the very start of it, things are looking very promising for Catalans Dragons.
“It’s a really exciting place; everybody wants to get behind the club. I can sense that people are still on a high from that semi-final in Perpignan.
“We need to create that every week at the Brutus. The fans are crazy passionate here and it’s up to us to keep bringing success to them.”
SB: It’s clear that you see a successful future for the club but you have only signed a one-year extension for next season. Are you looking elsewhere beyond that?
ST: “I want to stay at Catalans and I’ll be speaking to the club before the start of the season. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m loving my time here.
“This is a really exciting club heading in the right direction and I would like a longer deal, so I’ll try to speak to Bernard (Guasch, club President) and get something sorted.
“I truly believe this is a special club and it’s a privilege to play here. I know I still have some value in me. I might be 32 but I’ve still got a few years in me and I don’t want to play anywhere else right now.”
SB: Are you looking forward to your first-ever French Super League derby next season?
ST: “Catalans v Toulouse is going to be crazy and it has the potential to be a huge derby. It’s a brilliant new addition to the game’s traditional derbies which always bring out the best in players and supporters.
“I think we all want to see Toulouse get some real backing on the terraces; it’s such a big city and hopefully if they market it well, they can get a massive following.
“It would be amazing to see Toulouse succeed; they’ve got a pretty special stadium and I am looking forward to playing there.”
SB: Is there any pressure on Catalans or Toulouse to play a French style of Rugby League, free-flowing with flair, to entertain supporters?
ST: “Absolutely not, the only pressure is to win games.
“The way you get growth in support and television deals and increased sponsorship is by winning games. You’ve got to be successful on the pitch and reach finals.
“I don’t think there is any pressure on Toulouse to play a certain way to entertain people; they just need to win and they need to be impressive in that first year.
“The last thing they want is to dip in and be straight back out; they want to string some wins together and build in strength.
“They need to stay in the comp, it’s so good for Super League to have another French team and for French Rugby League.
“Catalans getting to the Grand Final and Toulouse being promoted in the same year was an unbelievable boost for the game here.”
SB: Toulouse seem to have stuck with their promotion-winning squad and resisted the urge to spend big on Australian imports. Do you think that will be enough to survive at the top?
ST: “They’ve not made loads of signings; they seem pretty confident with the squad they have, which is always a good sign.
“They’ve already got a good blend of experience and young French talent; I think they have a good balance.
“It will be good to see my old mate Harrison Hansen on a pitch again, although I don’t want to be bumping into him too often. I’ll try and avoid any physical contact for eighty minutes.
“I thought he’d retired ten years ago but he’s obviously made of tough stuff and he’s coming around again.”
SB: Apart from Toulouse, are there any other teams that you will be looking out for next season?
ST: “Leeds are always a major threat; they’ve never really gone away; they have made some shrewd signings and the way that Aidan Seizer and Blake Austin combine will be fundamental to how they go in 2022.
“After that, you can’t get past the usual suspects with Wigan, Saints, Warrington and hopefully ourselves now.
“I can’t see any major surprises next year and Leeds’ season will depend upon how well those two great halfbacks connect. If they click, I think Leeds will go really well.”
SB: With a World Cup next year, how much are you looking forward to picking up the England armband once more?
ST: “Straight after the Grand Final I gave (England coach) Shaun Wane a ring to let him know I wouldn’t be fit for the England-France international here in Perpignan, which was obviously disappointing, but I was happy to see Batty (John Bateman) getting a go with the armband.
“The pressure is now upon me to stay fit, play well and be in with a shout of wearing that armband again.”
SB: Do you think England are genuine contenders to win the tournament?
ST: “I don’t see why we cannot go and win the World Cup. If you look at the quality of players we have now performing at the highest level in Super League and the NRL we should be confident in competing with the top teams.
“We have a new coach, new systems, new set-ups and it seems a good recipe to get us that one step further. Have faith.”
SB: With a French World Cup planned for 2025, if your England days are over would you ever consider playing for Les Tricolores?
ST: “I actually qualify for France now; I’ve lived here for over three years so I could apply for the French team if they’d have me.
“Just imagine me and Jimmy Maloney playing in a World Cup final for France against the Kangaroos!
“Obviously, I’m not going to do that at this stage, but who knows when I am out of the England picture?
“I’m feeling more French by the day.”
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