'I'd love to play for Samoa': Highlanders star reveals test ambitions as Kazuki Himeno's debut delayed
Born and raised in Dunedin, the 24-year-old is eligible to represent the Pacific Island nation through his mother, who he said would be “proud” if he opted to play for Manu Samoa.
“That’s in the back of my mind at the moment, to play for Samoa,” Tomkinson told media on Wednesday. “It’d probably be good for my mum. She’s Samoan, [she’d] probably be proud for me to play for Samoa.”
That doesn’t mean the hard-hitting second-five has strayed away from his childhood dream of playing for the All Blacks, though.
In fact, the All Blacks coaches showed some interest in Tomkinson by naming him in the South Island squad for last year’s North vs South clash in Wellington.
Although he wasn’t included in the match day side, the fact he was named in the squad illustrates his how highly he is regarded by the national bosses.
Like many Kiwi kids, playing for the All Blacks was the ultimate goal for Tomkinson growing up, and while he would welcome the opportunity to play for Samoa, donning the black jersey remains a priority.
“As a little kid, you want to be an All Black and you want to play test footy and see what that is about. If I don’t become an All Black, hopefully [I can] push my case for Samoa,” he said.
“I always idolised Ma’a Nonu. Was happy as to see him come down to the Landers in 2013, but we can forget that season,” Tomkinson joked, making reference to the year the Highlanders finished second-last despite their all-star roster.
Despite becoming a regular member of the Highlanders’ match day side in recent seasons, Tomkinson finds himself behind a logjam of talent in the national pecking order.
Rieko Ioane, Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ngani Laumape, Braydon Ennor and Peter Umaga-Jensen are all capped midfielders fighting for four or five places in the All Blacks squad, leaving Tomkinson and other uncapped midfielders with plenty to overcome to make the New Zealand side.
However, Tomkinson’s explosive defence gives him a point of difference to most of his other peers.
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His ability to poleaxe defenders in destructive fashion has been seen regularly during his time with the Highlanders and Otago, which led ex-Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger to liken him to former Samoan hitman Brian Lima in 2019.
Those defensive traits were even seen as recently as last Friday, when he ploughed through All Blacks captain Sam Cane – no slouch by any means – during his side’s 39-23 win over the Chiefs in Hamilton.
It isn’t the first time Tomkinson has laid Cane out, having produced a similar effort during a Mitre 10 Cup semi-final between Otago and Bay of Plenty in 2016, but those dynamite shoulders have also come with numerous disciplinary issues.
Tomkinson has seen plenty of yellow and red cards throughout his career for mistimed or ill-judged tackles that have either left opposition players injured or have just been plain dangerous.
The most recent example came last year, when Tomkinson was red-carded and banned for six weeks for a solid tackle that saw his shoulder connect with the head of Auckland playmaker Simon Hickey while playing for Otago.
Hickey’s Auckland teammate and incumbent All Blacks midfielder Rieko Ioane, who was Tomkinson’s midfield partner in the 2014 New Zealand Schools side, labelled the tackle as a “cheap shot” immediately after the match.
In the months beforehand, Tomkinson had already received two yellow cards while playing for the Highlanders for similar offences, the first of which came when his shoulder collided with the head of Brumbies fullback Tom Banks last February.
That was later deemed to have been worthy of red card, leading to a three-week suspension, while an off-the-ball shoulder charge on Crusaders prop Oli Jager last August also saw him spend time in the sin bin while Jager was hospitalised.
A year before that, Tomkinson was red-carded in the Highlanders’ 2019 season-opener for what was deemed at the time to be a dangerous tackle on Chiefs lock Brodie Retallick, but that was later rescinded by SANZAAR.
With such a tainted disciplinary record, that could be what’s holding Tomkinson back from higher honours, but he believes he has improved his tackling technique and can remain just as impactful while aiming to tackle lower.
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“A big work on for myself is getting my tackle height right,” he said.
“We’ve got a good defence coach here, Shane Christie, who’s put in a lot through the pre-season, so, for me, I’m feeling comfortable with the way I’ve been tracking. It’s been good.”
So far this season, Tomkinson’s defensive discipline has been good, with last week’s yellow card against the Chiefs more to do with cynicism at the breakdown than dangerous tackling.
Under the guidance of Christie, Tomkinson could develop into a leading figure at the Highlanders, but how long he stays at his hometown franchise for is another question.
Contracted to the side until next season, Tomkinson refused to be drawn into whether he sees himself as a one-club man as the lure of offshore money and Super Rugby expansion into the Pacific looms on the horizon.
“I don’t really try to look too far ahead, sort of just that one-year basis and try focus my goals on that year and try get the best out of it, and after that year, I’ll re-focus again.”
The Brave Blossoms loose forward has been training with the Highlanders since first joining the squad after leaving his mandatory two-week quarantine period in the lead-up to the season-opener against the Crusaders last month.
Highlanders head coach Tony Brown said ahead of that match the 17-test international would be ready to play against the Blues this Sunday.
However, assistant coach Clarke Dermody provided an update on Wednesday that Himeno would instead play for the franchise’s reserve team, the Bravehearts, this weekend.
“It’s still pretty early. The plan is that he’ll play for the Bravehearts in Pleasant Point. Looking really good on the training field, so now it’s just getting some rugby he hasn’t played for a long time,” Dermody said.
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Another player who can definitively be ruled out of the Blues match at Eden Park is loosehead prop Daniel Lienert-Brown, who left the field against the Chiefs last week with a fractured forearm.
He is expected to be out of action until late April, becoming the third prop – after three-test Wallabies tighthead Jermaine Ainsley and loosehead Ayden Johnstone – to register on the Highlanders’ injury list.
Dermody said the club have called Hawke’s Bay prop Namatahi Waa, formerly of the Blues, into the squad for the week as injury cover.
The 30-year-old’s call-up is indicative of a growing relationship between the Highlanders and the North Island province, which has seen the Magpies’ head coach Mark Ozich take charge of the franchise’s U20 side.
“We’re pretty closely linked with the Hawke’s Bay boys at the moment, so they recommended Namatahi quite highly,” Dermody said.
No replacement, meanwhile, will come in for new midfield signing Fetuli Paea, who has been ruled out for the season with a high ankle sprain.
The Highlanders team to face the Blues will be named on Friday.
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