Sam Tomkins says his half-back duel with his former New Zealand Warriors team-mate Shaun Johnson could help determine the outcome of England’s first Test against the Kiwis.
England head coach Wayne Bennett sprung a couple of surprises with his final team selection, recalling Tomkins after a four-year absence and dropping centre Mark Percival for the opening game at Hull’s KCOM Stadium.
As expected, Wigan centre Oliver Gildart will make his Test debut but Bennett has caused a stir over his decision to pick the versatile Jake Connor ahead of Percival.
The St Helens player was largely ignored during the 2017 World Cup but played centre in England’s win over New Zealand in Denver in June and was named in the Super League Dream Team.
Jonny Lomax has got the nod at full-back over both Stefan Ratchford and Tomkins, who will form an all-Wigan half-back pairing with George Williams.
Tomkins will win his 24th cap, his first since the 2014 Four Nations clash with the Kiwis in Dunedin, after regaining his form for his club this year, largely at full-back.
“I’ve been watching as a fan these last few years but there is nothing like pulling a jersey on,” said the Catalans-bound Tomkins, who will play under Bennett for the first time.
“It’s huge. I’ve been lucky enough to do it twenty-odd times before and that just makes you want to do it again.”
Tomkins will go up against Johnson, a team-mate from his two-year stint with the Warriors who has been a nemesis of England over the years.
The 28-year-old Johnson, who knocked England out of the World Cup in 2013 with a last-minute try and conversion in the Wembley semi-final, missed New Zealand’s defeat to Bennett’s side in Colorado but was back to play a key role in their recent win over Australia.
“Johnson can be the heartbeat of a team,” Tomkins said. “They will look to him as one of the more experienced players in the team and certainly the most dominant half-back.
“A lot of play will go through Shaun and, given time, he’s one of the best so we’ve got to make sure we don’t let him do what he wants.
“He’s naturally one of the best players in the world from broken play - I don’t think there’s anybody better. He also has some vulnerabilities in his game which we’ve got to exploit.”
Meanwhile, although his preferred position is stand-off, Connor is confident he can justify his selection in the threequarters on his home ground.
“I’ve played a lot of centre in my time,” he said. “It’s not new to me. I’ll try to do the same job that I’ve always done, try and get my hands on the ball and give 100 per cent.
“It’s a massive confidence boost. There are some great centres in this team. I honestly didn’t know if I was going to play or not.
“Obviously I haven’t played centre for England yet so it was probably a big decision for him (Bennett) to make but he’s put trust in me and hopefully I can do a job for him.”
Gildart, who was a late call-up in place of the injured Sam Burgess, is also seeking to justify his selection.
“It’s a massive honour,” he said. “There’s some great players in this squad and I feel really privileged to get my chance.
“Wayne said he had been impressed with my last month of Super League and say nothing changes here, just play how I’ve been playing, which filled me with confidence.
“The end goal was to play for England. Obviously I get the chance tomorrow but I want to keep my place for the next five to 10 years.”