Matt Encarnacion,, Big League
SOMETIMES you have to worry about the state of Paul Gallen’s back. Having shouldered the Sharks almost single-handedly in recent years, you wonder how on earth he’s coping carrying the hopes of an entire community, let alone the entire state, particularly when they haven’t tasted success for seven years.
And now there’s the club’s rather unique situation with the handling of the ASADA investigation into the use of banned substances in rugby league. One can only speculate what the ‘future Gallen’ is thinking – future Gallen being the courageous fella ‘current Gallen’ annointed as the club’s leader once he becomes ‘past Gallen’... whenever that may happen.
One month hadn’t passed in 2013 when current Gallen began talking long-term future – albeit one that still included his team being led out by their beloved No.13 – and he named Wade Graham to be Future Gallen.
“Obviously hearing that from ‘Gal’, it’s a big honour,” Graham begins. “And Gal’s probably the best thing that has happened for me in my career – going down there and working with a player like him every day.
“For him to say that is pretty good. But Gal’s got a few good years left so I’ve still got a few years left at the back, which I’m more than happy to do.”
Humble words from a kid whose humble beginnings had their foundation in Sydney’s greater west. But in 2011, one phone call from current Gallen was all that was needed for Graham to flip his life upside down. A Blacktown kid also lumped with the title of the ‘next Brad Fittler’, Gallen called to talk life in the Shire, and Graham answered… eventually.
“I remember I had a phone call one day and I didn’t know who it was so I let it go through,” Graham recalls. “And then I got the voice message saying it was Gal. I actually thought it was one of the Penrith boys geeing me up like ‘Lewie’ (Luke Lewis) or someone who’d gotten wind that I had a chat with Cronulla. I actually rang Lewie up because he knew Gal from playing with him in the Australia and NSW sides and he said it was definitely Gal. So I called him back and it went from there.”
Sharks players recall the chirpy ballplayer had plenty to say upon his arrival at Shark Park. Gallen has admitted some of the senior players took exception to it, but Anthony Tupou recalls it differently.
“I remember he came in and he wasn’t scared to tell the big-name players what to do,” Tupou says. “But that’s just part of it. He just jumped straight in there – it’s just a natural thing for him. He’s still young, but he’s got an old head on him. That’s what everyone says when they meet him.
“He’s really mature. You can see it by the way he plays, especially last year. He’s a leader on the field so he’s already got my vote.”
Almost six years have passed since the prodigious talent graced the NRL for the first time, although his debut as a 17-year-old simply tells of his undeniable football ability.
Graham, 22, started as a five-eighth but has played primarily as a second-rower under Shane Flanagan and was used at hooker by childhood idol Brad Fittler in his City-Country debut last weekend. But if he stays at the Shire – and after extending last year to the end of 2015, early indications are he will – Graham will likely finish his career in the No.13, replacing the man he follows around with a mental notepad every day of the week.
This season, especially, you can see why he would. Gallen’s stoicism has been noticeable as the drama of the ASADA investigation has unfolded and plunged the club into an early-season crisis that came with some off-field casualties. But as Gallen has continued to stand tall for his team, it’s a wonder he’s been able to hold up given the load that back of his continues to bear. Future Gallen can give us an idea how.
“Gal’s more of a do-what-I-do-not-as-I-say kind of guy,” Graham begins. “He leads by example and he leads from the front. The way we train and the way we act, we obviously have similar traits. In some ways we’re different – Gal’s a bit of a stresshead whereas I’m one of the most laidback players in the team, but ever since day one, he’s had a lot of time for me.
“To go through what we’ve gone through this year, everyone is already in awe of Gal’s strength.
“If footy wasn’t there, we’d still be mates, and that’s the best thing I’ve learnt about him.”