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Almost 16 years ago to the day – August 15, 2003 – a very special individual celebrated a very distinct milestone in any young rugby league player's life.

Donning the No. 30, St Helens would unleash a fiery 17-year-old front-rower from the interchange against the Castleford Tigers.

James Graham was his name, and if you didn't know then, you would soon realise that this red-headed, larger than life character was going to make a huge splash in the rugby league annals over the next two decades.

St George Illawarra's Round 21 clash against the Gold Coast Titans this weekend will see Graham celebrate his 400th first grade game (St Helens 224 games, Bulldogs 135, Dragons 41).


To put Graham's longevity into perspective, the Dragons' latest debutant Jason Saab was only two years old when the now 33-year-old commenced his career.

While he is now known as the Dragons' Director of Rugby League Pathways and List Management, Ian Millward would be the man to green light Graham's Super League debut as the then St Helens coach.

"I remember I'd come out of my office of an evening to watch the juniors train, James was always a good size but really skinny, although he was always so passionate," Millward recalled.

"He was always one of our real promising players coming through the grades at St Helens. There was always this feeling that – although he had no rugby league background – James had great potential and we wanted to get him through to the Super League as quick as possible."

Indeed, with James being from the Merseyside, soccer-mad town of Maghull, rugby league wasn't high on the agenda. Instead the Everton tragic Graham's time would be best spent bantering with his Liverpudlian mother.

But like always, rugby league would find a way to source out the best. A flyer promoting the St Helens Crusaders junior rugby league would be Graham's gateway to an illustrious career.

"St Helens are renowned for bringing juniors through so when he came into the system full-time he was able to spend 12 months feeding off some really good players who were always in a position to win trophies," Millward said.

"James thrived in this good culture. When it came to his debut, we were at home and we thought it was a great time to bring him into the team. He ripped and teared in – his enthusiasm for the game was there for all to see." 

Graham's NRL success never in doubt

Graham's list of achievements is as long as his arm given his 48 Tests (43 for England, five for Great Britain) and two NRL All Stars appearances. With a trophy cabinet including the 2008 Man of Steel and 2014 Dally M Prop of the Year it's hard to argue the outstanding impact he's had.

Millward however judges James's passion, temperament, desire and enthusiasm as to why he's been so successful throughout his career.

"I remember watching England Schoolboys play against Australia in Featherstone on a freezing Saturday night. There would have been 300 people there. They all lined up for the national anthems and James sang it so loud," Millward said.

"I was hoping he'd back it up with his performance because he sounded like an opera singer. He was the captain that day and it would end up being the first time England would beat Australia at schoolboy level.

"He was always going to make it. He's not changed either. He's still that same person. It's quite eerie for me. When I talk to him now or whenever I'm around him, I feel like this is still James the kid I knew, still that great person."

The chance to bring Graham to the Dragons in 2018 was an opportunity Millward couldn't pass on.

"Even when Mary (coach Paul McGregor met him) his first impression was that 'I want to go to war with him'. To be able to bring him here was massive," Millward said.

"He has one more year left on his contract which is huge too – given it was a player option. He could've had a farewell season at St Helens or head to the Toronto Wolfpack given his wife is Canadian, but he wanted to stay.

"He has given the Dragons so much as well as St Helens, the Bulldogs and England."

Acknowledgement of Country

St George Illawarra Dragons respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples, where our games are played, our programs are conducted and in the communities we support.

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