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St Helens prop James Graham.

It not for some last-minute scrambling to appease government officials, James Graham's swansong with St Helens may never have been. 

Graham, who will play the last match of a stellar career for St Helens against arch-rivals Wigan in Saturday morning's (AEDT) Super League grand final, had his first plea to return to England to end his career knocked back by authorities following COVID-19 protocols.

"Australia has got very strict rules about who can and can’t leave the country [due to COVID-19], and rightly so because they seem to be managing it better than most countries," Graham told NRL.com.

"I got an email on the Thursday before the Monday that I was due to fly out saying my application to leave had been rejected.

"As you could probably imagine I was in a mass panic and it was pretty stressful trying to get my application re-done and processed in time to get on that flight.

Farah and Kimmorley praise James Graham's stellar NRL career

"There was no explanation so I sent every little bit of information explaining why I was wanting to leave in my next application and thankfully it was approved at 2pm on the Monday."

A few hours later, Graham was on his way to England for the final chapter of an illustrious 18-year career that began at St Helens in 2003 and will conclude with his 237th appearance for Saints in this weekend’s grand final at Hull's KC Stadium.

Along the way, Graham has played 421 matches in Super League and the NRL, including 135 for Canterbury from 2012 to 2017 and 51 for St George Illawarra between 2018 and this season's round six clash with Gold Coast on June 20.

I got an email ... saying my application to leave had been rejected

St Helens prop James Graham

The 35-year-old Liverpool born prop has also played 50 Tests (41 for England and nine for Great Britain).

The only current players with more appearances are Cameron Smith, Wigan captain Sean O’Loughlin and his St Helens counterpart James Roby.

Smith has played 430 premiership matches with Melbourne Storm, 56 Tests for Australia and 42 State of Origins for Queensland, while Roby has played 465 matches for Saints and 37 Tests for England and Great Britain.

Like Graham, O’Loughlin will bow out in the grand final, which will be his 458th appearance for Wigan. O'Loughlin has also played 33 Tests for England and Great Britain, many as captain.

"He is an absolute legend of Wigan and he is held in such high regard there," Graham said of O’Loughlin.

"You look at what he has done at that club, with so many famous names especially from that 1990s era - when they had so many legends - and he is held in the same regard as them.

Dragons prop James Graham.
Dragons prop James Graham. ©Nathan Hopkins/NRL Photos

"Personally, I hold him in such high regard too, in terms that I have played with him and he has been my captain. He has had a fantastic career and I have admired him from afar."

The rivalry between St Helens and Wigan is 125 years old and the two clubs have dominated the Super League era, with Saints having featured in 11 previous grand finals and the Warriors in 10.

Graham will be lining up for his ninth grand final but he has not been on the winning team since his first with St Helens in 2006.

Graham celebrated that triumph with was Roby, who will line-up alongside him for one final time on Friday night (7am Saturday, AEDT).

"It has been a strange year for everyone and for me personally, to finish my career with the team where it all began at 11 years-of-age, where I came through academy systems and got on the first team, I feel very fortunate.

"James Roby and I were in the same age group growing up and we played against each other as kids, and together for one year at our amateur club before coming through the system together at St Helens, so to play alongside him again from week to week has been fantastic."

Retiree reflections: James Graham

Graham had initially planned to return to England in 2021 for a farewell season with Saints but the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 fast-tracked those plans - and his retirement.

"It’s been a strange year, it really has, with the way things were at the Dragons, where the season wasn’t going to plan," he said. 

"I made a decision that this year was going to be my last [in the NRL] and I had been speaking to St Helens about possibly coming over for next season but I had resigned myself to the fact it wasn’t going to happen.

"Then when Luke Thompson got an early release to head to Canterbury there was a spot available at Saints and it was now or never. I was very grateful to the Dragons for letting me pursue that."

Graham is credited with changing the way front-rowers play and when he reached the milestone of 400 premiership matches last season, former team-mates were more than enthusiastic to sing his praises for a tribute.

Most who have played alongside or worked with Graham at St Helens, Canterbury or St George Illawarra would agree he deserves to finish with a premiership given the whole-hearted effort the front-rower has put in each week for 18 seasons.

Bulldogs prop James Graham.
Bulldogs prop James Graham. ©NRL Photos

However, history – including grand final defeats with the Bulldogs in 2012 and 2014 – have taught Graham to enjoy the occasion and focus on his performance.

"I am genuinely not thinking about that. All I can do is concentrate on the little things I can affect and by doing that we will give ourselves an opportunity to win," Graham said.

"Saints-Wigan derbies are always special games to play in and it will be two quality teams going up against each other with everything on the line so it has got all the ingredients for a classic."

 

The Super League grand final kicks off at 7am AEDT Saturday and will be broadcast on Fox Sports and Kayo, with coverage beginning at 6am AEDT.