Golden Lion: Graham closes in on Test record
James Graham will become the first Englishman to have a golden lion embroidered on his jersey as he closes in on the record for the most Tests by a British player when he represents England for the 40th occasion on Saturday (Sunday, 6am AEST) against New Zealand at Mile High Stadium.
England coach Wayne Bennett introduced the golden lion concept as recognition for service to the country, with those who play 20 Tests having a bronze lion on their jersey, a silver lion for 30 Tests and a golden lion for 40 Tests.
Garry Schofield and Mick Sullivan hold the record for the most Tests by a British player after each represented Great Britain 46 times and made three appearances for England but Graham's overall tally will be 45 after the Denver Test – of which 40 have been for England.
"It is quite an achievement to play his 40th Test for his country," Bennett said after confirming his 17-man squad for the Test, which includes 15 members of England's World Cup squad, with Hull utility Jake Connor and St Helens winger Tommy Makinson to make their debuts.
"For me, James epitomises what this team is about. He is whole-hearted, he gives his best and he wants to be here."
Since joining St George Illawarra this season, Graham has received accolades for encouraging the Dragons forwards to push themselves further by doing extra training and the inspirational prop has been having the same influence at England's sessions in Denver.
He spent time at the end of Wednesday's session at the University of Denver working with St Helens prop Luke Thompson, who was left out of Bennett's 17-man squad for the Test.
St George Illawarra captain Gareth Widdop, who will play alongside Jonny Lomax in the halves, paid tribute to his club and Test teammate for becoming the first player to make 40 appearances for England.
"It is a huge occasion and I am really grateful I get to run out alongside him," Widdop said. "We all know the way he plays the game and what he has done for English rugby league."
If he plays in the three-Test series against the Kiwis at the end of the season, Graham could be just one Test short of Schofield and Sullivan's overall record of 49 Tests for Great Britain and England.
Graham, who holds the record for most Tests for England, may equal their tally of overall Test appearances in 2019 at Mile High Stadium, as England and New Zealand have agreed to play in Denver for three years.
"For me, every time I get to represent my country it is always something that fills me with immense pride," Graham said of his achievement.
After steering England to their first World Cup final in 22 years last December, Bennett has retained the nucleus of the team which lost 6-0 to Australia at Suncorp Stadium and the players say the camaraderie within the squad will benefit them against the Kiwis.
"Since Wayne took over it has been one of the closest groups I have ever been a part of," Widdop said. "We have got a few new faces who have fitted in very well but it almost feels like a club team, we are all very close and enjoy each other's company which is great."
South Sydney prop Tom Burgess said the five NRL players in the England squad enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with their countrymen.
"I miss that camaraderie when you are over in Australia a little bit, with the lads you have grown up with," Burgess said. "It's just good to get around them and have a bit of banter.
England squad: John Bateman, Sam Burgess, Thomas Burgess, Jake Connor, James Graham, Ryan Hall, Chris Hill, Jonny Lomax, Tommy Makinson, Jermaine McGillvary, Sean O'Loughlin (captain), Mark Percival, Stefan Ratchford, James Roby, Scott Taylor, Elliott Whitehead, Gareth Widdop.