Sam Tomkins says he owes a huge debt to coach Shaun Wane – for refusing to pick him.
The pair will wave an emotional farewell from Wigan after Saturday’s Grand Final with Warrington, both having left their own unique mark on their hometown club.
They are now close friends but Tomkins admits he was less fond of Wane when he first encountered him in the academy system.
“He wouldn’t pick me,” recalls the 29-year-old, who initially joined on a £25-a-win contract.
“Week after week, I would go on and ask him why I wasn’t playing and he would give me a list as long as my arm of reasons, none of which I could argue with.
“I spat my dummy out when I got home and called Shaun all sorts.
“He used to say my defence wasn’t good enough. I was about 60kg, so that’s probably why.
“He said, ‘I’d love you to prove me wrong’, so he got Ben Kavanagh – about 12 months older and about 30kg heavier – and had me stand on the try-line with Ben running at me, trying to score. He ran at me 10 times and scored 11 tries!
“It wasn’t easy, but what Shaun instilled in me was the belief that if I kept trying I might get there.”
Tomkins left and played for St Pats while he had trials at Salford and Widnes, and nearly signed for the latter after Wigan’s interest cooled.
“Wigan said I could come back but there was no money if I did – even the £25-a-win had gone,” he said. “Widnes offered me £3,000 and at the time I was thinking, ‘I could get a car for a grand, insurance for a couple of grand’. But my dad didn’t let me.
“He said, ‘Do you really want to play for Widnes? Is that what you dreamed of doing?’ and I was like, ‘No, probably not’.
“When you’re 16 or 17 and you’re trying to decide where to go, three grand is a lot of money. But my dad said, ‘Three grand won’t change your life’.”
And so, in between working as an apprentice greenkeeper at a golf course in Ashton – which he reached on a moped bought with a loan from his gran – Tomkins continued to train at Wigan, continued to put in the extras.... and continued to be left out by Wane.
Incredibly, after only a handful of appearances in “games we knew we’d win”, he eventually landed him his big break – thanks to his quick-thinking and scheming!
“We were playing against Widnes at home in (an academy) semi-final and as the hooter went, a full brawl kicked off,” said Tomkins, who – again – hadn’t been picked by Wane.
“So, obviously, I was encouraging the players to get involved, hoping that some got banned!
“Six players got banned for the Grand Final – I was happy about it because Shaun had no choice but to pick me! And I played pretty well.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
His history, and Wigan’s history.
Five tries on a debut, a Man of Steel, two Challenge Cup wins and two Grand Final victories, a move to the NRL and a return home.
And now, after three years, another departure to join Catalans for 2019.
“In sport, things change so quickly,” he said. “When I was 17 and got my first proper contract, I never thought I would leave Wigan.
“When I went to New Zealand and came back to Wigan, I didn’t think I’d be leaving again. My next step is playing for Catalans and I’ve got four years there, but what comes after that, I’ve no idea.”
He is pleased the departures of John Bateman, Ryan Sutton – both to Canberra – and himself have been overshadowed by Wane’s departure to take up a role with Scotland RU.
“Shaun has been at the club for 30 years as a player, as a coach – him leaving is a much bigger story than any players who are leaving,” said Tomkins, who is in England’s squad for the autumn series against New Zealand.
“Players come and go every single year and John and Ryan are young lads who are going to the NRL and might be back at some point.
“It’s a strange thing to think about but what Shaun has done for the club is huge. Leaving the club is huge for him and I know it’s not a decision he took lightly.”
But as for himself, has it sunk in that his time with Wigan is nearly over?
“I don’t think it will sink in until I’ve got a Catalans jersey on,” he said.
“Wigan is a club and a family I’ve been a part of for a very long time.
“Next year will be the first time without a Tomkins in the squad since 2004.
“It’s a different feeling but for me and my family, it’s been a huge part of everything we’ve done for a long, long time.
“Although it’s not sunk in yet, me and my brothers are all in different chapters of our life.
“It will probably sink in when I’m in the south of France with hopefully a lot of fond memories.”