Joel Tomkins: Everyone should start the Challenge Cup at round one

Joel Tomkins goes over for a memorable try in the 2011 Challenge Cup final
Joel Tomkins goes over for a memorable try in the 2011 Challenge Cup final
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Joel Tomkins has more of a connection the the Challenge Cup than most.

The sound of plastic seats clattering as Wigan fans stood in expectation as Joel’s brother Sam moved the ball to the right is still clear.

That sound gave way to desperate shouts, and eventually celebration as Joel took the pass and raced from deep in his own half to score a wonderful Wembley try.

But moments like that try in the 2011 Cup final win over Leeds start with the wins ground-out in the run to the final, as Wigan must do against Hull KR tomorrow.

Granted, the days of visiting heavy pitches at poorly-lit grounds to come away with a win and a broken nose are over for players in the top sides, given eight of them come in at the last 16 these days.

And with fans in some quarters saying the cup has lost its magic, Tomkins admits he has noticed.

“I don’t think the final has lost its sparkle. Maybe the games leading up to it have done a little bit but maybe that’s because of everything else going on in Super League, the Super 8s, there’s a lot of other stuff going on,” he explained.

“When you get to the semi-final/final it’s huge. You’ve got the games on the BBC which is different, you’ve got a bigger audience, probably people who don’t usually watch rugby league watching.

“I suppose I can see why some fans might think that in the earlier rounds but in the later stages it’s as big as it ever has been.”

One criticism of the competition in recent years is that fans of the previous season’s top eight clubs no longer have the same chance of variety.

Granted, Hull FC faced Featherstone on Thursday and Warrington play against Toronto tomorrow, but such clashes are rarer now.

And while Tomkins doesn’t want to see wholesale changes to the cup, he has one solution to bring back some of the variety which might make fans who remember the 101 Top Tries video nod in agreement.

“I like the tradition of the Challenge Cup,” he said. “I would like to see everyone in it from the early stages, even Super League clubs. You might get some blowout scores but it would be good for the game and bring interest to the game.”

Coach Shaun Wane, a Wigan player in the 1980s, agrees there is a certain rugby league connoisseur appeal to the old early-round trips to places like York, Batley and Whitehaven.

But he also admits with the pressures on modern players, that route wouldn’t be the best for player welfare.

“I do like the early rounds. I like us having the chance to go to Whitehaven and Featherstone,” he said.

“We went there in my early days as head coach and they’re proper rugby league grounds. I loved it. It was pressure, they kicked hell out of us and we got the win in the end but we had to fight hard.

“But I get the reasons why (Wigan are entering the competition later). You can’t make the players play 50 games like we used to, it’s just too intense at the moment.”

But in future years, maybe fans will look at Tomkins’ 2011 try in the same way supporters of a certain generation now remember the likes of the scrappy 1993 quarter-final win on a snowy pitch at Halifax.

“I think when I retire and I look back that will be one of the moments in my career that will stand out,” said Tomkins, who missed last year’s Cup final defeat to Hull FC.

“That’s not somehting on my mind, obviously I want to get back to Wembley and win the final, probably more because I missed the final last year, I was coming back from injury.

“I still went down there and spent the weekend with the lads in the hotel. To see them getting up for the game, that’s what hurts and that’s why I want to be there this year.”