Joel Tomkins: Hitting his union goal

Saracens centre, who was reared on a diet of rugby league in Wigan, came south with the intention of playing for England – this weekend he makes his debut and is desperate to seize the opportunity

Most England rugby union players grew up daydreaming of making a red-rose debut against a sporting superpower in front of an 80,000-plus full house at Twickenham. Joel Tomkins, the national team's new outside centre? He was reared in a part of the country where the 15-man game is slightly lower on the ladder of sporting priorities than the rung occupied by downhill skiing in the Arabian Gulf.

"Where I was brought up, you didn't really know rugby union existed when you were a kid," said the 26-year-old midfielder from – you guessed it – Wigan. "All you wanted to do if you lived there was play rugby league for the town club. You didn't even want to be a professional footballer. You grew up with a hunger for sport, a passion for it... but the sport was league. On a Friday night when Wigan were playing at home, the town just stopped."

The eldest of three brothers – Sam Tomkins is a modern-day titan in the 13-man version of rugby and will soon be earning himself a mint playing in the Antipodes; Logan Tomkins, the junior member of the triumvirate, is a member of the Wigan squad and made his Super League debut last year – Joel has made a success of the notoriously difficult cross-code switch in record time. One of the reasons is that when he travelled south to Saracens almost exactly two years ago, he did so with an England cap clearly in his sights.

"Has it happened more quickly than I thought it would? Not really," he said, brimming with self-assurance after formal confirmation of his place in the starting line-up against the Wallabies. "I didn't put a timescale on it when I first came across, but it was always a goal of mine to make the England squad. I'd played a lot of my rugby league in the pack, but when the Wigan coach moved me to centre – we were a bit skinny on numbers in the position at the time – I realised the skills would be transferable to union, what with playing in the same areas of the pitch and often being the last or second-to-last defender.

"Having known Chris Ashton [the England right wing] as a kid, gone all through school with him and ended up playing alongside him in the Wigan team, I started taking more notice of union when he made the move to Northampton. I'd never set foot on a union pitch in my life, but I realised that the massive scale of the international game is something you don't really get in league."

Just recently, the most celebrated cross-coder in world rugby, the occasional All Black centre Sonny Bill Williams, could be heard comparing the two games and placing league some way ahead of union in terms of its demands on the body. "Obviously, union is the bigger sport globally," he remarked, "but I believe league is a lot tougher. In union, I played in the backs with the pretty boys, kicking stones out wide and doing our hair. In league, I'm in the middle doing the hard yards."

Tomkins does not buy this stuff for a second – not because he suspects Williams might have reached another conclusion had he played his union at tight-head prop or open-side flanker, although that might be the case, but because he regards the sports as fundamentally different from each other. "I wouldn't say one of the games is tougher, because that would be disrespectful," he commented. "In league, you might spend long periods of time with your heart rate up at 80 per cent. In union, you might have a quieter time for a while but then find yourself in two-minute spells where you're going at 90 per cent. In league, it's all about upper body strength and holding people up in the tackle. In union, you're looking to put people on the ground as quickly as possible and use your skills in the contact area. They're distinct sports and should be viewed as such."

He described his childhood as "brilliant": one long rugby runaround with his brothers, from dawn till dusk. "Sam was always a bit special," he said. "He was the small kid on the pitch, but his agility and the way he ran marked him out as a player with huge potential, right from the start. Will he ever come across to union? I don't think that's in his mind. He's signed a three-year deal to play in the NRL and he'll honour the contract. Will I go back to league? I consider myself a union player now, the World Cup in 2015 is a target and by the time that's over I'll be 28. I'll reassess things then."

He is a confident sort, for sure: not brash by any means, but quietly assertive and admirably composed. Stuart Lancaster, the England coach, said his "big game temperament" was a major weapon in his armoury, and Tomkins agreed. "I've played in some big matches: cup finals for Wigan, league internationals against the Australians, who have been the best team in the sport for years. That experience helps."

But what of his future in the red rose elite? Is he simply keeping the shirt warm for Manu Tuilagi, the human bowling ball who has rolled off the alley temporarily? "People get their chances because of injuries to others all the time – it's the way things are in sport," he replied. "Manu is a big figure in the team and I understand that, but this is my opportunity."