Forget Messi or Ronaldo.
James Graham may have grown up in the shadows of Everton’s Goodison Park but when he was a boy he wanted to be like Nathan Blacklock or Anthony Mundine.
“I didn’t quite try the backflips and somersaults but as kids when we would throw the ball around they were probably the two players we wanted to be,” Graham said on the eve of his 400th premiership appearance for St Helens, Canterbury and St George Illawarra.
“I think a lack of pace stymied any ambition of that but you can dare to dream when you are a kid. We would only get one or two games of NRL per week but I can distinctly remember when Blacklock and Mundine were playing for this club and we’d try to do flick passes like them.”
After beginning his career as a 16-year-old for St Helens on August 15, 2003, Graham will reach the milestone in the Dragons match against Gold Coast at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium on Saturday.
While his feat won’t be afforded the same fanfare as Cameron Smith’s 400th appearance for Melbourne last month because he achieved it with three clubs in two competitions, it is just as remarkable considering Graham has played his entire career in the front-row.
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For someone who has played in eight grand finals for St Helens and Canterbury, this season’s results have been disappointing but Graham hasn’t given up on winning his first NRL premiership with the Dragons and said he hopes to finish his career at the club.
“The fire is still burning so it would mean a lot,” Graham said.
“In an ideal world I would love to finish here. That would be nice. I am here next year barring something tragic happening or unless the club don’t want me and then I would go.
“Whatever happens I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at St George Illawarra and I am looking forward to at least next year and who knows after that. But I have got no ambition to go anywhere else, that’s for sure.”
The 33-year-old Englishman has played just 10 per cent of his career – or 40 of his 399 premiership appearances – for the Dragons but he has had a huge impact on team-mates in his two seasons so far.
Graham feels he owes a debt of gratitude to St George Illawarra after being squeezed out of the Bulldogs during a shake-up at the end of the 2017 season and is unashamedly loyal to the Red V.
“I am incredibly passionate about playing for St George Illawarra,” he said.
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“They gave me a huge opportunity, they really made me feel valued and wanted so it is up to me to repay that for the reasons that they wanted me to come and the attitude they felt I could bring to the club.”
His first coach, Ian Millward, is the head of recruitment for the Dragons and St Helens team-mate Darren Britt, the former Canterbury captain and prop, also had an influence on Graham’s career.
“I was always encouraged to pass the ball a little bit in England and I was fortunate enough when I came into the system at St Helens to be able to see the way Darren Britt played,” he said.
“He was someone who liked to play with the ball and I wasn’t the biggest guy in the world so running over the top of people was never really suited to my body size.”
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Along with Sam Kasiano, Aiden Tolman and Dale Finucane at the Bulldogs, Graham helped change the way front-rowers played in the NRL as Des Hasler encouraged his forwards to ball play.
“I was fortunate with the coaches I had at St Helens that they really encouraged me and the philosophy was that if someone is in a better position to you pass them the ball,” he said.
Graham also changed, or adapted, his leadership style after being suspended for dangerous contact on Adam Reynolds and contrary conduct for remonstrating aggressively with referee Gerard Sutton after being penalised for the tackle during the 2015 Easter Friday clash with South Sydney.
He offered his support for NRL head of football Graham Annesley’s call on Monday for players to “back off” from approaching referees to debate decisions during games.
“Biochemically I am not the same person any more. I don’t have the same amount of testosterone pumping through the blood as I did back then and that is just and age thing, which is unfortunate,” Graham said.
“Personally I don’t mind watching the theatrics from time to time and the passion but I understand that if I was to do it again I would be facing another suspension so I guess you have to learn because I am not a particularly good watcher of the sport, particularly if it is my team.
“There are times when you have to pull it back a bit but I genuinely do respect the referees and think they have got an incredibly difficult job to do. They are an easy target sometimes.”