Sam Tomkins interview: The world at his feet ahead of the Rugby League World Cup in England
He on how he nearly joined Sarries, like his brother, but how his sights are now set on England glory
The Burgess brothers do not have a monopoly on fraternal headlines in rugby. Furthermore the brothers Tomkins are letting off flares across both codes. A day after Joel Tomkins was named in the England union squad, perhaps surprisingly, for the autumn internationals, brother Sam was included entirely predictably in the league XIII for the World Cup warm-up against Italy on Saturday.
Had rugby league's most expensive global signing chosen to follow his brother to union at Saracens, Stuart Lancaster might have been looking at a brotherly double against Australia at Twickenham in a fortnight. The offer was there and Sam was listening before Wigan threw pound notes at the issue with a bumper deal to keep the game's star attraction in Super League.
"I sat down with Ed Griffiths [Saracens chief executive] and Andy Farrell," he says. "We had a chat. The plan was for both of us to go there. I was pretty close to going. As it happened my transfer fee was a bit bigger than Joel's, and they decided just to pay for Joel. At the same time Wigan offered me a contract in Super League that I just couldn't turn down. I decided that to stay at Wigan would be the best thing for me. I'm glad I made that choice. Saracens really wanted me to sign but what made the decision for me was wanting to play my best years of rugby in league, and maybe switch to union later if that was still a possibility."
It is, but not before Tomkins has fulfilled his ambition to play in Australia's NRL with the Auckland-based New Zealand Warriors. Tomkins raised the transfer bar last month, announcing his departure from Wigan for a lumpy £700,000. Last year's Man of Steel, the highest honour the game can bestow on one of its own, has long been recognised as a singular talent and at 24 is about to tap into his peak athletic years.
The fee will inevitably increase the poundage when the tackles come in against Australia in England's World Cup opener in Cardiff a week on Saturday. Not that Tomkins needs any introduction.
Attention is something to which he has become accustomed, and which he relishes. The idea that the transfer fee will make him a target or act as a drain on performance is easily handled by an iron-psyche.
"People mention the transfer but I didn't pay it and I don't get any of it," he says. "To me it's not a massive burden. I'm going there and will earn good money but so do a lot of NRL players. It doesn't alter the fact that I'm going there to make a success of it. If I'd gone for free or half the transfer sum I would still have been trying my best so I don't think it will have any impact on how I play."
Outside of the rugby league heartlands the World Cup has struggled for traction. Perhaps the arrival of the southern hemisphere behemoths, though very much second-class citizens in Australia, might permit a broader appreciation of the sport. The eel-hipped Tomkins stands comparison with any back in either code, demonstrating how pace, balance and ticker, when aligned to a dipping shoulder, still has a valued place in a rugby universe increasingly obsessed with size.
Tomkins could not have come into the World Cup in better heart or form. Victories in the Challenge Cup final against Hull and enthrallingly in the Grand Final against Warrington brought his Wigan career to a suitably garlanded end. The move to Auckland was announced in sequence, leaving him to focus on what he believes is the best opportunity England have to win the World Cup for the first time.
"It's been an amazing year. I've been lucky at Wigan to win two major trophies and then coming into a great England side at the World Cup. It's a great position to be in. Timing-wise the move was perfect. I'm 24, no real ties, no missus or kids. I thought it would be great to go over there for three or four years until I'm 27 or 28. Going to NZ Warriors is something I'm excited about. I really want to have a go at the NRL, play my best rugby there.
"I spent a month in Auckland playing for England in 2010. I was training and with the group so I didn't get to see too much but I spoke with my good friend Thomas Leuluai. He loves the place and says I will, too. I know he wouldn't tell me any lies. I've heard only good things about the city. I'm going into a quality side, like the one I'm leaving at Wigan. So long as I can do my bit for the team I will be successful and hopefully the team as well."
He might even come back a better player, as hard as that thought might be to process after watching his progress thus far. The infusion of TV money has inevitably impacted on the quality of the rugby produced in the NRL, with the best players gravitating south of the equator.
The attractions, be it more money or sun, are clear. Add that to the grass-roots health of the game in Australia and you begin to understand the scale of the task England face over the next few weeks.
That said, Tomkins, one of six players in the England squad attached to NRL teams, believes the export of English talent will improve the prospects of the national team. "The domestic game over there is above Super League. It's just the number of people playing the game in Australia makes a difference. There are the same number of kids playing in the Parramatta area of Sydney as our whole country so we are always going to be up against it.
"But this is the best chance we have ever had to win. If you look at the squad we have you have to agree that it is the fittest and most talented. The ability in the side is massive. What we have is bags and bags of potential. We know that does not win you games. We have to convert that into performance but our preparation has been perfect so there is no reason why we won't. Our elite players can match anybody so there is no reason why we can't succeed. There are a few English lads playing in the NRL and that can only help the England team in terms of standards."
Wigan have first dibs on Tomkins when his days Down Under are done, but a return to Super League is not a given, especially now his brother is involved with the other England. Tomkins concedes the idea of turning out for the red rose at Twickenham is a powerful one. "The only thing that would pull me to union would be the international stage, selling out Twickenham, etc.
"I have had a little taste playing for the Barbarians. It was a bit of a nothing game and we had 55,000 people watching us. That made me realise big it is. Playing for England against Australia, New Zealand at a packed Twickenham, yes I would like to be part of that one day." First up, he has 13 Australians to conquer.
England will kick off their Rugby League World Cup 2013 campaign against Australia on 26 October at the Millennium Stadium. To purchase tickets: visit www.rlwc2013.com/tickets
McNamara: Last chance to win Australia place
England will use a 20-man squad in tomorrow's friendly against Italy in Salford, their final run-out before their opening World Cup game with Australia.
Coach Steve McNamara has announced a starting line-up to face Italy and will use seven players from an unlimited interchange bench for a match that is not being classed as a full international.
"There is a great opportunity for the players to really push on and stake a claim for a start against Australia the following week," McNamara said.
England S Tomkins (Wigan); R Hall (Leeds), C Ablett (Leeds), L Cudjoe (Huddersfield), T Briscoe (Hull); R Chase (Castleford), K Sinfield (Leeds, capt); J Graham (Canterbury Bulldogs), M McIlorum (Wigan), L Mossop (Wigan), L Farrell (Wigan), G Hock (Widnes), S Burgess (South Sydney). Replacements R Burrow (Leeds), J Roby (St Helens), J Charnley (Wigan), K Watkins (Leeds), G Burgess (South Sydney), C Hill (Warrington), G Widdop (Melbourne).
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