Sam Tomkins relishing 'hostile environment' in Challenge Cup quarter-final
Anyone watching Warrington's win over Toronto in the last round of the Challenge Cup will be aware of the buzz games between the Wolves and Wigan creates.
The pair were drawn out of the hat for Saturday afternoon’s game live on the BBC following the Wolves’ rout of the Championship leaders in front of a small gathering of supporters.
And the noise they made told anyone even without a clue about rugby league that this is a big deal.
The clubs’ previous goes way further back than the 2011 and 2017 meetings between the sides at this stage in the competition, both won by Wigan.
And both wins have seen Sam Tomkins pull the strings. A try in the 44-24 win of 2011 and the deciding drop-goal in last season’s 27-26 win have probably ensured Wolves fans won’t be easing off on their dislike of the Warriors full-back any time soon.
But it’s the atmosphere created by a healthy rivalry like this which make the Halliwell Jones Stadium one of Tomkins’ favourite places to play.
“I’ve always loved playing at the Halliwell Jones, it’s a great stadium. It might be the years of me supporting Warrington when I was a youngster, enjoying being at Wilderspool, and then the Halliwell Jones, but it just creates a great atmosphere,” he said.
“This time last year we had a good performance there, it was my first game back after breaking my foot so it was a special one for me. It was difficult but we got through it and got the win, and it’s not an easy place to go.
“There’s a great atmosphere, but it’s pretty hostile, and the fans are right on you. When you are kicking a goal from that sideline, the full 10,000 will let you know what they think of you.”
And while Tomkins admits what they think of him, which sometimes might rhyme with a career in finance, isn’t exactly what gives him a buzz, anyone stood on the terraces for a clash between these two rivals will agree such atmospheres are rarely matched.
“Not so much what they think of me,” he smiled when asked if receiving attention from opposition fans acted as motivation.
“Them just calling me a k******d doesn’t help but the fans are obviously very vocal, and that builds for an atmosphere.
“It’s the way that the stadium is built.
“It’s pretty small and compact, they cover the two corners and you can’t hear yourself talk when you
are in the thick of it so I think it’s a great stadium to build atmosphere.”
But there’s also a drive for Tomkins away from any rivalries, and away from earshot of encouragement from the terraces.
Having lifted the Challenge Cup twice, last year he also found out what the losing dressing room at Wembley is like. A memory which hasn’t faded.
“I think the feeling you have in the dressing room is horrible, it just seems like a wasted effort,” he said.
“It’s still pretty fresh in our minds. It’s not even been 12 months since we were sat in that dressing room sulking so we understand that we’ve got to get there. But it’s not just getting to the Challenge Cup Final, that’s not good enough.
“It would be for some clubs and some players to tick the box that they’ve played at Wembley, but we’re a famous club who have won the trophy more than anybody else.
“We’re expected to win and we understand that we have that pressure and expectation and that can be our driving force to getting there.”
And like the last time Tomkins lifted the trophy, in 2013 before he headed off to New Zealand Warriors, this time he is also fighting to help Wigan reach Wembley before he leaves.
But that, he insists, isn’t adding any extra motivation.
“You couldn’t want it any more. You couldn’t want to win a Challenge Cup any more than you do at the start of the year whether you are here for 10 years, two years, two weeks, everybody wants it 100 per cent,” he said.
“It would be nice to finish and leave the club with more silverware. I was lucky in 2013 to leave with a double which was a dream come true. So in terms of wanting it and giving us the edge, we’ve got 30-odd players here committed to putting everything on the line to win silverware, so we can’t want it any more.
“But it would make it more special to leave with another trophy.”
And when he does leave for Catalans at the end of the season, the player more subject to opposition chants and taunts than most will no longer be playing for the club which has won the Challenge Cup more than any other.
No longer part of a team disliked by rival fans as much as it is adored by those wearing cherry and white.
So how will those fans react to Tomkins next year?
He smiles again.
“I still think they’ll think I’m a k******d. I don’t think that’ll change!”