Sam Tomkins may be the biggest sports star you’ve never heard of. Then again, if you love rugby league, or you live in the game’s cultural heartland in the north of England, never having heard of Sam Tomkins is akin to being a classical music buff to whom the name Mozart means nothing.
As Jessica Ennis was the face of London 2012, so Tomkins is the face of rugby league’s World Cup, which is being staged in England and Wales over the coming month. But that’s not all. The England fullback has just completed a transglobal switch from the all-conquering Wigan Warriors to Auckland’s New Zealand Warriors for a world record fee. So think Jessica Ennis meets football’s £85 million man Gareth Bale,and you’re beginning to get the idea.
Tomkins was the first man in rugby league history to score five tries in a first-grade debut (for Wigan in 2008). He scored a hat-trick on his international debut against Wales the following year and, at the age of 24, is England’s all-time leading try-scorer. He crowned his domestic club career this autumn by playing a key role in Wigan’s double-winning 2013 campaign.
It doesn’t stop there. He’s hosted his own show on Sky Sports, and starred in a promo alongside Sir Bradley Wiggins that went viral. Named rugby league’s Man of Steel (player of the year) for 2012, Tomkins conducted interviews for Sky Sports News live from the red carpet in London at this summer’s premiere of the new Superman film, Man of Steel, drawing a knockabout exchange from Russell Crowe, not always the sunniest of interviewees. He has even had a tin of soup named after him (Heinz Big Soup’s Beef Tomkins & Onion – a charity fundraiser). Not even David Beckham can say that.
Eating a sandwich in a Wigan café, Tomkins grins at the description of his stardom. “The lads call me Hollywood,” he admits. “I enjoy the high profile and it’s certainly not a burden. But it’s easy to get carried away with it.”
In the age of social media, a star as big as Tomkins attracts the bewildering bile that is the norm these days. Yet meeting him, his easy manner makes it hard to disagree with BBC Sport’s rugby league correspondent George Riley, who hails not only the “free-flowing arrogant brilliance” that makes Tomkins “frighteningly good”, but also his development into a “confident rugby league ambassador”. Tomkins himself merely laughs when asked if he grew up wanting to be the biggest name in the sport.
“I grew up wanting to play for Wigan,” he says. “I dreamt of playing Australia. I watched Darren Lockyer [the Kangaroos’ captain, now retired], thinking how unbelievably talented he was and how I wanted to be like him – and come 2009 I was playing against him. If you go to any rugby pitch in this town and ask the eight-year-old kids what they want to do when they’re older, they’ll say, ‘Play for Wigan’. It’s all I ever wanted.”
His younger brother Logan, 21, plays for the club, and his older brother Joel, 26, did too, until he switched rugby codes in 2011 to play rugby union for Saracens. It’s clear that a small patch of the North West is Sam’s home, and has been since infancy when his parents, now divorced, moved north from Milton Keynes, where he was born. Yet in December he leaves for three years in Auckland. The switch is a very big deal.
“I’m ready for it,” he says, and then adds tellingly, “I see my mum and speak to my dad every day. It’s very strange to think I won’t see them or my brothers for months on end. That’ll be the toughest part. I’ll be massively out of my comfort zone. I’ve a lot of friends here who are nothing to do with rugby. I love ’em. But I’m excited about what’s to come.”
What is immediately to come, of course, is the World Cup – and for England, ranked third in the world, it begins with the sternest examination. Thrillingly, the tournament kicks off with England’s opening match against Australia, the most successful team in World Cup history, with nine trophies in the 13 Cups they’ve played.
“That will be a massive test for us – which is good,” says Tomkins. “There’s no time for finding our feet or running into form. We’ve never won the World Cup, but this is our best chance yet. Anything less will be failure.”
As we sit in the café, every now and again Tomkins raises his hand to acknowledge fans who wave as they go by. It’s difficult to envisage Gareth Bale having a snack in a Madrid bar without flashmob hysteria ensuing. Tomkins’ world record transfer fee remains undisclosed, but best estimates put it in the neighbourhood of £700,000 – less than 1 per cent of Bale’s record-breaking move from Spurs to Real Madrid.
“It’s crazy,” shrugs Tomkins. “The money football generates is ridiculous, probably 150 times what rugby league gets. It’s just the way it goes.”
He doesn’t appear to mind that large swathes of his own country have no idea who he is. “It’s quite nice,” he says. “It means I can go on nights out and not get done.” Besides, he’s far too aware of his good fortune to indulge in feeling hard done by. “I get far more acclaim than I deserve. I get so many nice things on the back of playing rugby. What do I do with my money? I’ve got a couple of nice watches, nice cars. I’ve got a few houses.”
Wait… “a few houses”? Monaco, New York, Bermuda – that sort of thing?
“Wigan,” he says. “I bought my mum a house, I’ve got a house, I bought a couple I rent out.”
Ah. But it’s true, though, isn’t it, that he would almost certainly be richer and more famous if he followed Joel and switched codes? “Yes,” he smiles again, “but then I’d have to play union.”
With typical grace, Tomkins declines to pronounce one code tougher than the other. “In both codes you get toughened to the hard hits. In league, guys pretend not to be injured so they can play. I’ve done it myself, with concussion, painkiller injections, everything. Some players play pretty busted for a long time. A lot goes on behind closed doors to make sure you run out on the pitch on a Friday night, and everyone thinks you’re perfect. We don’t bruise easily. It’s what we sign up for.”
Something about Tomkins, so unimpressed by his own star status, feels like a throwback to the way we hope sport might have been before the world became a global village, before football particularly became engorged by its own greed. He is not a “brand”. He is a personable bloke eating a sandwich in a café. Rugby league may have a fraction of football’s money, but as long as its leading lights are men of Tomkins’s calibre, the sport is rich indeed.
Rugby League World Cup: Australia v England is on Saturday at 2:00pm on BBC1, 5 Live and Sports Extra.