Its all but confirmed that the reigning Man of Steel and brightest star in the European Super League galaxy is set to head down under, and its rightly causing some fear amongst Wigan fans. Everyone knows that Wigan don't pose the same threat without Tomkins, but are they really a one man team? And how do Wigan without their key player compare to other teams missing their key players?
I've picked two players from each of the four most consistently successful teams since 2009 (the only teams to reach more than one final, GF and CC combined) - Wigan, St Helens, Leeds and Warrington. I've picked what I deemed based on generally observed opinion to be the the most key forward and most key back for each team during that full period - four of the players have been the regular captains over that time, and the others have all fulfilled that role at times, and yes I see Kevin Sinfield as a back, he is a tall halfback or standoff and has never really been a loose forward! Finally, the data runs from Round 19 in 2009, which is the week after Sam came off the bench following Tim Smith injuring his arm to lead Wigan to a win at Hull KR in front of the Sky TV cameras, largely seen as Sam's announcement and leading to him nailing a regular starting place. It runs to Round 20 2013 because this was the last round before I pulled the data together. Data is largely adapted from the excellent Rugby League Project website.
Based solely on the numbers it does support the suggestion that Wigan are a one man team, and that one man is Sam Tomkins, winning over 80% of games with him in the line up, but only 25% when he is missing. This is by far the most significant difference in results for any of the players looked at. The only other player who seems to make his team notably worse off when he isn't there is James Roby, with Saints winning two-thirds of games he plays, but only half when he doesn't play.
Sean O'Loughlin is felt to be at least as important to the team as Sam Tomkins by many Wigan fans, but the stats don't bare that out. Along with both Sinfield and Peacock over in Leeds, Lockers doesn't seem to have a major impact on his team when he is missing - the figures are similar whether he plays or he doesn't, only slightly better performance is seen when these three players play.
Over at Warrington, however, captain Morley and legend Briers don't seem to matter that much at all. In fact the team seems to perform a little better without them in it, and there are a good number of games where both of them have missed the same fixtures and the team has still kept up their winning standards. And then this leaves Paul Wellens, St Helens co-captain for a number of years and key defensive and try scoring presence at fullback, or maybe not - the team seem to be 12% more likely to win without him playing.
Now, numbers don't lie, but you do often need to go beyond the headline figures to see the real story being told. Lee Briers has missed a third of Wire's games and Morley a quarter, so the numbers for these players must be pretty robust. However, Warrington have been building a squad to replace these elder-statesmen and having missed them for large amounts of games have had the opportunity to put active structures in place to deal with their absence.They haven't missed a Wigan game and missed only 1 Leeds games each - they tend to play in the tougher fixtures and miss more of the straightforward ones.
St Helen's losses without Wellens were against Wigan, Warrington, Leeds and Catalans, all teams they could have lost to with or without him. The only notable wins were away at Warrington this season (when both Morley and Briers were both out) and away at Huddersfield in 2010. Lots of the wins without him were against teams like Salford, London and Castleford, who haven't troubled the playoffs of late. The numbers look like they don't need him, but then the detail suggests that maybe he is just another player in the squad and shouldn't be seen as key is all - he's just happened to miss mostly games against top teams that St Helens might well have lost anyway, skewing the data.
The Roby case is different. It's pretty even for both wins and losses against stronger teams and weaker teams, so it wouldn't be fair to say the losses have been to top teams and wins against poor teams, where you could have argued Roby's absence may have little real impact. Looking deeper in fact, it looks worse. When Keiron Cunningham was still around Saints won all three games Roby missed in the period observed. Since Cunningham retired at the end of 2010 and Roby became THE hooker in St Helens, they have won 5 and lost 8 (38% win) without Roby, with losses to Bradford, Widnes, London, Hull FC and Hull KR as well as Wigan, Warrington and Catalan. I wouldn't say they are a one man team, there isn't enough data here to show that, but Roby really seems to be key to St Helens.
Sinfield has only missed 11 games, and three of the losses have been away games at Wigan and Huddersfield (twice). It would appear that where Sinfield is concerned Leeds aren't a one man team, the small number of games missed however means we can't really draw any strong conclusions. Peacock missing games has a little more impact, and he has missed a high amount of games so firmer conclusions can be drawn. You can't conclude that they are a one man Jamie Peacock team though, he doesn't make enough difference as they still win most games without him. One interesting point though is Leeds have won three Grand Finals during this time period, the one time they didn't win it was the year Jamie Peacock didn't play in the playoffs due to injury.
O'Loughlin is very similar to the Leeds pair in that Wigan have won and lost against strong and weaker teams in Super League without him. Looking in more depth doesn't make it conclusive that he is essential, although it can't be said that he is unimportant either.
So far we haven't proved any one of the 'key' players identified makes a one man team, the closest we've come is James Roby. So lets go back to the player who started this all off. Are Wigan Warriors a one man Sam Tomkins team? The headline numbers do make it look that way, although the sample is so small that it can not be conclusive. Only 10 games have been played without Sam. However, 7 losses are joined by a scrappy 1 point win at Widnes in 2013 and a scratchy draw at Castleford in 2011 - a good 20-4 win at Huddersfield in 2011 (also without Pat Richards) is the only real exception.
The small sample is very suggestive. If you break it down a bit more though, some potential explanatory features emerge. Firstly, although you could argue he helped greatly in making Sam what he is in switching him to fullback, Michael Maguire was very lucky with Sam. He played every Super League game of the league leading, final winning 2010 season and only missed two games in 2011. However, Michael Maguire's Wigan didn't lose either of those two games as they found other ways to play without the key strike fullback weapon. Shaun Wane maybe hasn't been so lucky with Sam missing 7 games for him in just over a season and a half, including probably his biggest game in charge to date - the 2012 playoff semi-final against Leeds. Wane may miss Sam even more because his attacking structures seem to work towards Sam's skills - watching them, Sam seems almost essential. Maybe Wigan aren't a one man team, they are a key man team - especially in attack, where in four of the games he's missed they have definitely struggled to score.
Now Sam is a great player, why wouldn't you make him key to what you do with the ball, you'll clearly score more tries by getting him into space with ball in hand. But maybe this still doesn't explain the problem Wigan have faced when he is out, particularly under Wane. Unlike players such as Wellens, Morley and Briers who have tended to miss games in groups or bunches, Sam has never missed two games consecutively in this period. Now, that creates the opposite problem Warrington have faced - if a key player misses the odd game here and there you can't effectively plan for games without them, there isn't the training time between games. The real test would be what Wigan do if this key player is missing for a bunch of games. Surely they will adapt to not having such an incredible strike weapon. Its a test it looks like Wigan will have to face in 2014 when Sam is likely to be proving how key he is for the other Warriors down under.
There you have it I suppose. There are some really key players at the top teams, but no team appears to be a one man team, even Wigan and Sam Tomkins, they just haven't had much chance to prove it yet!