SAM Tomkins is perhaps the most coveted player on the planet and clear favourite to win the Lance Todd Trophy today.
Yet he recalls a bloody encounter at Wakefield’s Belle Vue ground when skint, skinny and fresh out of school which left him contemplating life as a greenkeeper instead.
Much of the pre-Challenge Cup final discourse has, inevitably, been about the Wigan Warriors full-back’s fitness and, also, a much speculated imminent move to the NRL for the dynamic England international.
He only actually properly returned to Wigan’s side in Perpignan last week, his first Super League game since June.
From then, the current Man of Steel had strangely only appeared in their Challenge Cup quarter-final and semi-final victories, having missed games for a variety of reasons, including late withdrawals through sickness and then a back spasm.
Tomkins will, however, certainly take his place at Wembley today and look to repeat the flair and dash which helped his side earn a Challenge Cup success over Leeds Rhinos two years ago.
Yet, as a 16-year-old and long before he became such an in-demand iconic figure, it needed the intervention of current head coach Shaun Wane to persuade him to actually stay the course in rugby league.
“When I came through my scholarship, he was knocking about then,” said Tomkins, about the gruff former Wigan prop who was promoted from Michael Maguire’s assistant two years ago.
“He was coach when I was in the Under-18s and it was a tough 12 to 18 months for me.
“I wasn’t the best kid at 16 and I didn’t get a contract at Wigan.
“I was playing for £25 quid a week if we won and I was picked.
“If we didn’t win or I wasn’t picked, I didn’t get paid.
“It wasn’t the star-studded idea of signing for a club as what I thought at 16.
“But Shaun improved me and from 16 through to 17-and-a-half, coming up to 18, he made me realise what I wanted to do”
Tomkins continued: “There were loads of times I thought about doing something else.
“I used to work on a golf course as a greenkeeper after I left school. I remember playing at Wakefield. There were lads who were three years older.
“When I was 16, I looked about 13 and I was playing lads who were 19 but looked about 30!
“I got smashed in the face and cracked a couple of teeth.
“There was blood everywhere. I went in at half-time and Shaun just said: ‘Be tough Sam’.
“I remember thinking ‘is this what I want to do for 10 years, getting my head smashed in and told to be tough?’
“Everyone goes through a bit of that as a kid but it makes me realise how lucky I am now.”
Wiganer Wane, 48, had been linked to New Zealand Warriors next season, where Tomkins is apparently destined, but he confirmed this week he will be at the DW Stadium again in 2014.
Wane was a substitute in the Cherry and Whites side that defeated Halifax at Wembley in 1988 and Tomkins added: “I class him not only as a great coach but as a friend. I want to win it for him as much as anyone else.
“He’s a tough taskmaster. It takes a lot to get any praise off him but that’s what you want, not someone who butters up every scenario. Good can always be better and that’s his philosophy.”
Tomkins, meanwhile, insists there will be none of the unsavoury antics of 2011 when he aimed a V-sign at Leeds fans while celebrating Wigan’s opening try at Wembley.
“It gets spoken about and I can laugh about it now,” he said, 33 tries already amassed this season.
“It was a rush of blood to the head. It was a silly mistake that I made in the heat of the moment.
“It was a fine and a telling off which I deserved but when I look back at the trophy, I will look at the picture of us lifting the trophy not of me sticking up two fingers.
“There’ll be no repeat this year – Hull fans are a bit nicer.”