AS ENGLAND prepare to navigate their way a step closer to an elusive World Cup success, tonight’s game has come as something of an unexpected surprise to one of their fraternity.
There could be as many as six Wigan Warriors players treading on familiar turf at DW Stadium this evening as Steve McNamara’s side face France in the quarter-final.
That itself is not so unusual, especially considering Great Britain once fielded an entire Wigan pack against the Australians in a famous win at Melbourne in 1992.
However, for Sam Tomkins it is a swift return he thought might never happen.
The talismanic England full-back joins New Zealand Warriors from Wigan on a lucrative four-year deal at the end of this tournament.
He had, then, thought he had played his last game in that arena when Shaun Wane’s side dumped Leeds Rhinos out of the play-offs in September on the way to Grand Final glory.
“I wasn’t sure if I would get the chance to again, at least for a number of years,” he admitted.
“There’s no chance to play there again for a while so it will be brilliant going back.
“It’s a stadium I’ve got nothing but happy memories from and it will be good to play there again.
“There have been some really memorable games against the big teams – Leeds, Warrington, Saints.
“My debut is certainly something I will remember and I remember thinking then how big the stadium was.
“I couldn’t believe all the seats; when you’re on the field it looks huge. It seems strange to think it was so overwhelming back then.
“The memory of that day probably keeps me grounded. I think how important things were to me back then and that all I wanted to do was play on the DW pitch for years and years. My debut will probably be the biggest memory.”
That will be surpassed, however, if England – 41 years after Great Britain last lifted the World Cup – can go on and win this tournament.
To do that they must overcome a French side who, admittedly, have offered little so far and then defeat holders New Zealand before a likely finale with Australia.
Tricky indeed. The warm-up of the group stages is certainly over but Tomkins is still looking no further than tonight’s encounter.
“We’ve got to win haven’t we?” said the 24-year-old. “Not just for me to bow out but for us to carry on in this competition.
“There are no thoughts of not winning this week; it’s an absolute must-win game.
“For my last game at the DW to make sure it’s a win would be lovely for me but the main focus is on getting this England team into the semi-finals. We’re at the stage now where if we slip up or put in a bad performance like we did against Italy, we are gone.”
Strangely, the usually prolific Tomkins has yet to even score in this World Cup.
“I need to stop putting it on a plate for other people don’t I? I’m killing myself,” he joked.
“It would be lovely to score in an England jersey at Wigan, it would be the perfect sign-off so I’ll be doing plenty of supporting when people break through.”
Meanwhile, elder brother Joel will today be continuing his own burgeoning England career – for the union side against the mighty All Blacks at Twickenham.
He debuted against Australia a fortnight ago and played against Agrentina last week but Tomkins has yet to see him in action due to his own national commitments.
His parents, too, have generally opted to go watch his sibling as the Saracens centre strives to cut it in the 15-man code.
“They’ll all be watching Joel again, they’re all union fans now,” he smiled. “My mates will come (to Wigan) because it’s a bit cheaper and they can all walk it from their houses so I should have a fair few there. Last week, my mum did watch me and my dad went down to London so I don’t think I’ll prise my dad back, I think he’s watching Joel too much now.
“I don’t ask them any more, it’s just getting embarrassing because they all say ‘no’.”
Having memorably played together in Wigan’s 2010 Grand Final win and when defeating Leeds in the 2011 Challenge Cup final at Wembley, there is disappointment he cannot witness Joel’s union birthing in person.
“Joel wouldn’t be too bothered about watching me,” he said.
“I’ve played for England a lot of times, but I’m gutted that I can’t watch him live down there.
“I think they kick off a bit earlier than us this week so I’ll be able to watch Joel’s game in the hotel probably. That’s good but I am missing it. I’ve got a mate who goes down to every game so I just have to speak to him about what it’s like. It’s disappointing but I’m enjoying what I’m doing here.”
Lastly, what will he miss about Wigan when it does all finally come to an end after tonight?
“The pies. Meat and potato,” says Tomkins, predictably.
“Probably my friends and family. I’ve got a very close bunch of mates and family as well that are all in Wigan.
“I’ve been well and truly in my comfort zone in Wigan for a number of years now – living there, playing there, all my friends are from there – so there is quite a lot that I will miss.
“But timing-wise I’m ready for a change... and learning a little bit about not being in Wigan eating pies all the time.”