Tomkins, the Wigan legend in the making, relishes final buzz

Young star excited by date at Wembley as former players line up to hail him the future of the club

Sam Tomkins, potentially the great Wigan player of his generation, goes into his first Challenge Cup final today with many a sound judge comparing him to club greats of yesteryear, Ellery Hanley and Shaun Edwards. No pressure then.

Tomkins has met Edwards once and says he was too tongue-tied to talk to him and flattered though he is by those comparisons, he says they are premature. "It's nice to hear, but I'm a way off Ellery and Shaun. They're a bit out of my league just yet."

Their level of achievement is certainly a long way removed from the uncertain start to Tomkins' own playing career, when he could easily have been lost to the game at 16. "Wigan were offering contracts and they didn't offer me one," Tomkins says. Instead, they told him he could stick around and play on a match-by-match basis, at a princely £25 a game. "At the time, I thought maybe it wasn't for me. There were other lads in my age-group getting three- and four-year contracts.

"Shaun Wane was the Under-18s coach at the time and he wouldn't pick me for anything. Every week I'd ask him if I was in and he'd tell me no and I'd be carrying the water again. I did that for a year."

Tomkins' breakthrough came in unusual circumstances. Six Wigan players were suspended after a mass brawl, so Wane had little choice but to pick him. Frustrating though the wait had been, he now believes Wane – who will be unveiled as Wigan's new head coach at some stage after the final – had a point. "I was very light," he says, "and my defence wasn't great."

You cannot say either of those things about him now, the combination of a growth spurt and Wigan's emphasis on strength and conditioning has seen to that.

It is, though, his astonishing broken-field running that makes him hot favourite to win the Lance Todd and Wigan equally short-odds to win the Cup. "I don't think there's too much pressure," he says. "As a team, we're confident of what we can do. We want to perform the way we have done for the last couple of months."

Those recent months have seen Tomkins produce some memorable performances and some unforgettable tries. Although he drives opposition fans mad with a confidence verging on cockiness, it is hard even for them not to respond to the sheer exuberance of his play.

"Life's really good at the moment. There's nothing else in the world I'd rather be doing than playing rugby and getting to finals. It's a good time to be at the club. There's a buzz around the club and the town."

Much of that excitement revolves around a lad who was not considered good enough at 16, but who is now having to adjust to a degree of adulation and praise that is unusual in rugby league.

Andy Gregory, who won the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match in the victories of 1988 and 1990, said this week that Tomkins has the ability to follow in those footsteps.

"Sam has all the skills of a world-class player and I think he has what it takes to have a massive final," said the former Wigan and Great Britain scrum-half. "If Leeds are going to stand any chance of winning, they are going to have to stop Sam and that's easier said than done,because he reads the game so well."

Edwards never won the Lance Todd, but if there was a lifetime award for achievements at Wembley, his record nine Cup wins would entitle him to it.

He picks out some other aspects of his approach that make Tomkins special. "He's really dedicated to his profession," he says. "He's in great physical shape and he's the sort of player people pay money to watch.

"He's also very durable. They hit him and he just gets up. He's got that wiry strength."

Whilst it is his instinctive, individual tries that lodge so firmly in the popular memory, Edwards stresses the way that Tomkins fits into a team pattern; his support play, in fact, has been compared to Edwards' own in his heyday.

"Full-back is a great position to back up from. You've got a lot of freedom there to get on the end of things," says Edwards, who hopes to get to the final, Wasps and Wales commitments permitting.

He does not expect to see Tomkins overawed by the experience. "He's already played in a Grand Final and taken that in his stride," he says. "I'm really confident that he will shine and Wigan will win the match because of their teamwork."

And back to that adulation. "I can be on a night out in Manchester," says Tomkins, "and some bloke, 40-odd years old, will come up and ask you to sign his napkin. It's a bit different, but I enjoy it."