Sam Tomkins: Grand Final glory would be perfect farewell after almost retiring early in the season

Sam Tomkins portrait
Sam Tomkins bows out after a superb career on Saturday, hoping to win Catalans Dragons their first Grand Final against his boyhood club - Tim Clayton for The Telegraph

Sam Tomkins won three Super League Grand Finals across two spells at Wigan Warriors, where he enjoys legendary status, and marked each success with a tattoo on his heavily-inked body.

After Saturday’s title decider at Old Trafford, he is hoping to add another piece of artwork to celebrate what would be a fairy-tale finish to a highly distinguished career.

Wigan, arguably the biggest and most famous club in British rugby league, versus Catalans Dragons, the French upstarts who have never won a Super League title, is an occasion to increase the heartbeat.

That Tomkins will be lining up for Steve McNamara’s Dragons against Wigan in his final appearance before retiring adds a huge layer of intrigue to a contest dripping with sub-plots.

Several other Catalans players are also playing their last game for the club while victory for Wigan would continue their rise under impressive young head coach Matt Peet.

But there is no story quite like Tomkins, who made his name at Wigan after bursting on to the scene as a teenager, scoring five tries on his debut in May 2008.

The 34-year-old full-back is seen by many as the greatest player of his generation and knows that facing his hometown club in his last-ever game provides the perfect script for a glorious last hurrah.

Tomkins made a solitary guest appearance for the Barbarians, scoring against the Wallabies at Twickenham in 2011 but, unlike elder brother Joel, resisted a code switch to rugby union.

He said: “I’ve not thought about losing this weekend; I don’t think you can but I’d be devastated. I’ve lost big games before, the toughest being with England against Samoa in last year’s World Cup semi-final.

Sam Tomkins of England looks dejected following their side's defeat as Samoa celebrate
England's defeat in the World Cup semi-final last year was the hardest of Sam Tomkins' career - Michael Steele/Getty Images

“That was terrible, but my last game for Wigan before joining Catalans was a Grand Final win over Warrington at Old Trafford in 2018. Now my last-ever game against Wigan and I know how very lucky I am to be in this position.

“My story is a sub-plot really in what is a great opportunity for Catalans Dragons to win our first-ever Super League title.”

That Tomkins is even involved at all is remarkable after a serious injury to his left knee almost forced him to quit earlier this season.

He explained: “At the end of last year, after the World Cup, my knee was pretty shot. I didn’t want to go get it checked out because I had an amazing chance to captain my country in a home World Cup.

“Straight after I saw four different specialists – three in England and one in France – and they all gave me the same diagnosis: ‘Retire straight away.’

“I thought I knew better, though. I had an operation in the off-season and thought I’d see how it went. I didn’t do a lot of pre-season but after my first game in February, against Leigh, I had a sleepless night.

“In the early hours of the morning I phoned the coach and said I couldn’t do it anymore. It was the toughest conversation I’ve ever had.”

Tomkins was willing to forgo his lucrative contract, revealing: “I told the club they were better off bringing in someone who could play every week. I wasn’t asking for a payout, I just wanted to finish, but they said: ‘We’d rather have you for important games than bring someone in.’ That was humbling.”

A plan was concocted whereby Tomkins would be carefully managed and play only in key matches.

Tomkins continued: “I sat down with the medical staff and coaches and we marked out on the calendar what we thought were the most important games of the season.

“The plan was to work out ways I could play in those eight or nine games. My training got tailored massively and the staff here have been amazing. I’m not in agony every day, it’s more the recovery time after games.

“I’ve never made any secret of fact I love this club, I’m passionate about playing here and to play my 100th game was a massive honour.”

The Grand Final will, remarkably, be Tomkins’ 21st appearance of the season.

When Catalans beat St Helens in last week’s play-off semi-final, his delightful footwork took him through the visiting defence for a brilliant match-winning try.

It has set up a meeting with the club where he tasted Grand Final glory in 2010, 2013 and 2018, the last of which came after a spell in the NRL with New Zealand Warriors.

Since leaving Wigan for a second time to join Catalans in 2019, Tomkins has thrived on and off the field, with his wife and four children happily settled in the south of France.

He will take up an off-field role at the club when he retires, adding: “My kids speak better French than they do English.

“They don’t know any other way of life, so it would actually be more difficult to move the family back now. Coaching’s not really for me, but I’ll be doing an ambassadorial role working across all areas of the club.”

But first the small matter of trying to deliver a maiden Super League title to the Stade Gilbert Brutus.

“This would be the most special trophy I’ve ever won; it would be huge for French rugby league,” admitted the ultra-competitive Tomkins, who played in the Dragons’ maiden Grand Final in 2021, a 12-10 defeat by St Helens.

“The fairy-tale isn’t about me playing on Saturday – it’s about winning the game.”