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Super League Grand Final: Pearce and Tomkins’ final fling

14 Oct 23, 8:33AM 0 Comments

Written by John Davidson

Sam Tomkins and Mitchell Pearce are getting ready to hang up their boots.

On Saturday their Catalans Dragons team tackles Wigan Warriors in the Super League grand final. It’s their last chance for another slice of silverware before retirement..

It’s rare that you see two long-serving four players, who have had such long and distinguished careers, in both hemispheres too, retiring at the same time.

Both Tomkins and Pearce have made great contributions to the 13-man code on both sides of the equator.

Milton Keyes-born and Chorley-raised Tomkins was a poster boy for English rugby league for more than a decade.

He came from a rugby league-mad family, with both of his brothers Joel and Logan becoming professionals. But Sam was easily the pick of the litter.

He burst onto the scene at Wigan in 2008, scoring a remarkable five tries on debut in a Challenge Cup tie against Whitehaven at the age of 19. It was a taste of what was to come.

Whether a halfback or five-eighth, the speedy blonde would destroy defences and score tries for fun. He had the step, the speed, the pass, the kicking game and helped Wigan to two grand final wins and two Challenge Cup wins, and won Man of Steel, before a huge move down under for a world-record fee to join the Warriors in 2014.

Tomkins spent two years in Auckland, but returned to Wigan in 2016 after being homesick.
Derided by many as a failure in the NRL, the fullback actually bagged 14 tries in 37 NRL games and more than made his mark. But his second season in New Zealand was marred by injury, and he returned to the UK.

It proved a smart move as he helped the Warriors to another grand final in 2018, before decamping to Catalans. In France the fullback has thrived, being named Man of Steel and leading them into the 2021 grand final.

Whether in his 29 Tests for England or at his clubs, the tattooed flyer has long been one of the great entertainers. Hated by rival fans, but loved by his own club’s supporters, his career has been full of ups and downs, and plenty of silverware.

His winning try in the semi-final against St Helens was just another example of his class.

“I think Sam will go down as one of the best in Super league era,” says Warrington halfback Josh Drinkwater, who has played both with and against Tomkins, told Everything Rugby League.

“The two things that playing with and against him, and it probably doesn’t get mentioned because of all the other things he does, is how selfless he is and will do anything for the team.

“If a play that wasn’t necessarily for him got called he’d make sure he was in a position to draw attention to himself to open it up for someone else, and defensively as a fullback he’s always in the right position and saving tries.”

In some ways, the career of Australian Pearce has been very similar to that of Englishman Tomkins. He also came from a family steeped in the sport.

The son of rugby league royalty legend in Wayne ‘Junior’ Pearce, Mitchell has been in the spotlight since birth. And the spotlight has not always been kind to him.
The halfback debuted in the NRL with the Roosters in 2008 and never looked back. NSW City honors followed the following year, as did Origin selection.

Pearce would go on to make 19 appearances for the Blues over the next 11 years, but often being unfairly lumped as NSW’s scapegoat as they fell each year to the Smith/Thurston/Cronk era of Queensland dominance. The criticism was at times brutal.

In 2010 he was part of the Chooks side that made it into the grand final, but lost to St George Illawarra. A leader and a game organiser, Pearce could create for others and had an impressive kicking game. He became one of the best generals, best game managers, in the NRL.

Three years later he would win his first grand final as the Roosters, under new coach Trent Robinson, prevailed over Manly.

Off the field though Pearce ran into trouble on occasions, was a regular in the ferocious Sydney media and in 2016 a major scandal ensued when a drunken Australia Day video of him went viral. It was massive news. He was fined $125,000 and banned for eight games.

In 2018 he left the Roosters and joined Newcastle, after the Chooks signed Cooper Cronk. Pearce initially impressed in the Hunter, getting recalled by NSW in 2019 and helping the Knights into the finals in 2020 after a long absence.

But things fell apart in 2021 after news broke of a texting scandal with a female club staff member. The playmaker eventually decamped to France the following season, where he has been a key member of Steve McNamara’s side for the past two years.

Pearce’s game management skills have come to the fore with Catalans making the top four in both 2022 and 2023. While he never donned the green and gold, the halfback racked up more than 300 games in the NRL and represented the Blues, NSW City, the Prime Minister’s XIII and the NRL All Stars.

Certainly nothing to be sneezed at.

“Pearcy is just what people call a rugby player,” Drinkwater says.

“Always on the ball and challenging the line and probably has the kick from 40-50m out I’ve come across, you can see why he’s played at the highest level for so long and to debut at 17 in the NRL goes to show the toughness he has.

“Two great players finishing up at the same time, I’m sure they will be as busy as they have ever been in this grand final.”

How will Pearce and Tomkins, the Aussie and the Pom, be remembered? As is the way in sport, loved by some, disliked by others.

Tomkins was an excitement machine, confident and strong-willed, all speed early in his career and attacking flair. He was often a match-winner, much like Pearce.

Coveted by rugby union at one stage, Tomkins was one of the biggest stars of the English game for a long period.

Like his Dragons teammate, Pearce was hailed and reviled. Living in the shadow of a great father can’t have been easy, but the halfback more than held his own and then some. While he was never Thurston or Cronk, and really, who is, he should always have a special place in the hearts of the Roosters faithful in particular.

Both can end their careers happy and content.

And as the saying goes: “Retirement is not the end of the road. It is the beginning of the open highway.”

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