“Where I am from people don’t know what Rugby Union is and I am glad I have had the chance to play but I am still a Rugby League player.” These were Sam Tomkins’s thoughts on appearing in the Barbarians-Australia game at Twickenham. And let’s be honest, the people of Wigan still won’t know what Rugby Union is. So the Tomkins experiment is over, Wigan Warriors will breathe a sigh of relief he didn’t break a leg, whilst the RFU might be exploring the possibilities of finding a loophole in the new 5 year contract Tomkins signed with Wigan this month. Although he wasn’t the standout player on the day, Tomkins certainly let no-one down, producing a few flashes with ball in hand, finishing off a consolation try, whilst he could have had a hat-trick if some his teammates knew how to throw a scoring pass. It was however, rather amusing to watch Sam flap around at the bottom of the rucks, wondering why they wouldn’t let him get up to play the ball.
It seemed a strange decision to begin with, letting him line up in the enemy code when his brother has just switched to the other side, and Sam himself has explored the possibilities of a move in 3 years time. Some saw it as great publicity for Rugby League, a chance to showcase the talents of one of their finest at Union’s HQ against the World Cup semi-finalists. RFL chairman Nigel Wood labelled it “the sincerest form of flattery,” whilst veteran League star Sean Long, who has recently switched to Union himself, believed it was good for Sam “to play on the big stage whatever the code. It is good exposure and I think he will enjoy it.” All the media attention certainly switched towards the League star, whilst Sky on the day ensured he couldn’t drift into obscurity, featuring him in all their match analysis, with the cameras even picking him out during the national anthems. His profile will now certainly be raised and therefore Rugby League could potentially have a superstar amongst their ranks to rival the ones Union always possesses, the Jonny Wilkinsons or Martin Johnsons. But surely this will lead to renewed interest from England and the RFU, making it a matter of time before Sam joins older brother Joel in pursuing the money and joining the 15 man code.
This was certainly a fear for most League fans if not the officials within the game. Such heightened coverage of one of their stars could only have the Union big bucks come calling quicker, despite the clause in Tomkins’ contract that says he can’t talk to Union clubs for the next 3 years. League voices like Keith Senior were more critical with their opinions: “Why don’t the RFL just help promote union even more? It’s ridiculous, and delaying the inevitable of him going to union too.” It’s a fair point, does Rugby League really need Union receiving more headlines in the papers, reducing their own game to little more than a sidenote alongside Basketball or Tiddlywinks. The sport already suffers so much from the lack of press coverage it receives in comparison to Union; even the recent Four Nations tournament couldn’t awaken the vast majority of the general public, with most people still focused on England’s disastrous Union World Cup campaign. It also had the added factor of proving League players could still cut it in Union. Sam’s performance was not of the dazzling variety we see him produce week in, week out in a Wigan shirt but he gave a good account of himself all the same. Less League players have been targeted recently, following the dismal failures of some individuals that crossed the divide. Players like Lee Smith, Chev Walker and Karl Pryce barely pulled on a Union shirt during their stay and this put off many suitors who decided to keep their money in their pocket. Shontayne Hape disappointed in an England shirt as well, and so did Lesley Vainikolo and Andy Farrell before him, even though all three of them were genuine League superstars. But Chris Ashton has kept the League flag flying in Union, following in Jason Robinson’s footsteps in catching the eye in an England jersey, for both his try scoring exploits and flamboyant celebrations. With Joel completing his £250,000 move to Saracens, it will be interesting to see how this affects levels of Union interest in League players once more, indeed has Sam’s appearance sent the scouts rushing back to the Super League to discover the next gem that Rugby League has to offer?
The question is genuinely a tricky one; on one hand it offers League more publicity, on the other, Union becomes more interested in the League players. The issue has been very divisive in the League community and everyone will be glad now the storm has passed without much further incident. But what about Sam himself? By his own admission he hadn’t a clue about Union. “I was so raw I didn’t even know what the numbers for each position were. The boys were saying ‘we’ll play this off the 12 or the 10’ and I didn’t even know where those blokes were so that was a bit of a challenge.” With this in mind, Tomkins’s performance was even more admirable. But it’s got to be said, he looked so bored! There was no passion or hunger on his face like when he brings the ball up from full-back for Wigan or England. He did go looking for work, but there wasn’t an over eagerness to get his hands on the ball at all times. We all felt for Sam, given that the handling and skills shown inside him were atrocious for supposedly professional Rugby players, indeed the two tries butchered with Tomkins in support have already been mentioned. The game itself was a joke; the Barbarians showed none of their usual flair and ambition and shipping 60 points brings their own existence into question, Sunday League sides often turn out performances of a higher standard than that. So why would Sam still want to play Union after all that? Well, obviously for the money but let’s hope his one experience has put him off for life. League needs to keep its best players in the 13 man code to stand any chance of developing as a sport.