Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
He is renowned as Canterbury’s front-row enforcer, having helped the Bulldogs emerge from the finals wilderness to reach Sunday’s Telstra Premiership grand final, but hardhead England international James Graham admits to experiencing regular bouts of homesickness during his first season in the NRL.
Just days out from their highly anticipated title showdown with Melbourne, Graham opened up to NRL.com about the difficulties he has faced being so far from family in 2012 and his disappointment that none of them can be there at Homebush on Sunday to witness his date with destiny.
“I’m only human,” the 27-year-old explained. “There are times when I wish I could be at home. Little things, like my nieces’ birthdays… you’d like to be there. You speak to them on Skype and they don’t really understand how far away Australia is; they think you can just drive around and [see them].
“But I guess that was ‘part of the dance’ with coming over. I knew that was going to happen. It’s something I thought about a lot when I was coming over.”
While Graham’s parents have already spent time in Australia with him this season, he said that they were unable to return in time for Sunday’s decider, with his extended family set to gather together back home in Liverpool instead.
“If money was no issue or they were just a train stop away they’d be here but unfortunately that’s not the case,” he said. “In an ideal world they would be here… but that’s not to be. There is no point them coming over for a week and flying back home – plus I’ve got a lot to concentrate on, too.
“But the great thing about being a rugby league player is that you get some pretty decent time off so I’ll get to go home and see them soon. It will be great to see them and also the friends and family.
“My mum and dad got to come out here for a little bit but it will be good to go back and see my mates.
“But as I said, when I came over I knew this was going to be part of it – missing family and friends.
“At the end of the day, nobody is forcing me to be here. I could go and jump on a plane back home right now if I wanted to so it’s not that much of a burden on me. And I’m really enjoying it. The club has been great. They’ve made me feel really welcome. It’s a great bunch of lads to come to training with on a daily basis. It’s been a really good experience.”
One of an increasing number of British players to have tested themselves in the NRL in recent seasons, Graham was heavily courted by a number of Australian clubs – including western Sydney rivals Parramatta and Wests Tigers – after announcing in late 2010 that he would head Down Under this year.
Ironically, it was largely the vision set out by former coach Kevin Moore as well as CEO Todd Greenberg that convinced him the Bulldogs were the way to go and he admits to arriving in Australia slightly unsure what to expect from the newly appointed Des Hasler.
“We were in the middle of the season back home when everything [Moore’s sacking and Hasler’s subsequent arrival last year] and we got through to the playoffs so I was concentrating on that more than what was going on over here… but I kept up to date with what was going on,” he recalled. “All I could really do was play the best I could. What happened had happened. When I got over here I met with Des and it seemed like it was going to be alright. As a player you’ve got to treat your coach with respect and Des is no different. Coming in from day one I was really impressed by how he was. He made it very clear what our roles were and what he expected of us.
“I mean, I came over with an open mind. I’d been at St Helens all my life so I didn’t have any attachments to any club over here. And I think I’ve made the right choice, anyway. I couldn’t be happier to be honest.”
Certainly the Bulldogs will be pleased with Graham’s return in his maiden year in the NRL. Arguably the single most important member of their all-conquering pack in 2012, his skill and footwork at the line has garnered plenty of praise from team-mates and rivals alike while his 2283 metres from 304 hit-ups is the most by any Canterbury forward.
It’s the sort of work-rate that will be crucial against a Melbourne side that has displayed some ominous form of their own in recent weeks, with Graham insisting there is still plenty of work to be done if the Bulldogs are to gather on the premiers dais on Sunday.
“All I can do is keep trying my best and keep trying to improve as a player,” he said. “One thing I don’t want to do is rest on my laurels and accept performances. As a club and as players I think we’re always trying to improve.”
While Graham has no idea what direction his career will take once his current three-year deal expires in 2014, one thing that is certain is that an English player will lift the NRL trophy this weekend for the first time since Adrian Morley in 2002, with England team-mate Gareth Widdop lining up for Melbourne on Sunday night.
In Graham’s case, however, it is an opportunity to complete a rare treble, having previously won a Super League title in 2006 and three Challenge Cup finals between 2006 and 2008.
Asked how an NRL premiership would compare, the Bulldogs prop replied: “I don’t know. I guess maybe on Sunday I’ll be able to answer that! I really don’t know yet – I won’t know the feeling until it happens. I could only speculate. But I’m going to try my very best to find out Sunday evening.”