Uncertainty may continue to shroud Cronulla’s season, but aggressive ball-playing back-rower Wade Graham insists the close-knit team is ready for Monday night’s clash with South Sydney and are focused on doing what they do best: actually playing footy.
But to have a chance of toppling South Sydney Graham knows the black, white and blues need to complete their sets and defend well – or risk being over-run by a rampant Greg Inglis.
“Souths come at you for 80 minutes and they control the game really well through Adam Reynolds and they just wait for the right opportunity for ‘Greggy’ [Inglis] or [John] Sutton or someone like that,” Graham told NRL.com.
“They just stay in the arm wrestle and wait to strike – and for us to win we’ve got to do that in return. We’ve got to take our opportunities when they come and be prepared to stay in that arm wrestle.”
Graham, who recently moved to the Shire after initially commuting from the western suburbs to the eastern beaches, says the feeling in Cronulla is positive and the Sharks’ squad remains on task despite the cloud of doping allegations hanging over the players’ heads.
“It’s been a dead-set circus down here,” said Graham, who at 22 years of age has already racked up 86 NRL games.
“It’s like a circus – you just don’t know what’s going on. Each day throws up something new… It was great to finally go out and finally play footy [last week].
“It’s just so frustrating because everything’s being played out in the media and nothing’s been done… that’s the main thing. We just want it all over and done with but at the end of the day we can’t do anything about that. Like ‘Gal’ (captain Paul Gallen) said in his post-match interview last week, getting out there on the field and actually playing was the best part of the week and I’m really looking forward to playing [on Monday] and we’ve got a tough game against a really talented Souths team. It’s going to be good – I just want to get out there and keep playing footy!”
The Sharks face a huge test at ANZ Stadium in the form of Michael Maguire’s resurgent Rabbitohs, who last week defeated the Roosters 28-10 in the first match of the 2013 NRL season after finishing 2012 just one game short of the grand final.
Cronulla, meanwhile, put their dramas behind them to record a 12-10 victory over the Gold Coast at Sharks Stadium in Round 1. Graham insists the emotion-charged win won’t be a one-off – and his Sharks are ready to overcome the Rabbitohs’ star power. Plus, the Titans franked the Sharks’ form from Round 1, blowing away the Raiders in a 36-point shutout at Skilled Park on Sunday.
“Souths are looking really good,” Graham, who ran for 143 metres against the Titans in a strong performance, admits.
“Michael Maguire came on board last year and they were really good in their first year under him and obviously they’re going to get better. Their first performance against the Roosters was really good… and Greg Inglis out the back, he’s a whole [challenge] on his own. We’ve got a tough game [tonight] and our focus is all on that!”
Graham is a dog-with-a-bone fighter who combines a strong defensive game with the passing and kicking abilities of a playmaker; he is now a key member of the Cronulla pack following his shift to the forwards in recent seasons.
However, the former Panther insists he’s still getting used to playing in the ‘pigs’ and is enjoying being educated by some of the best forwards in the game.
“I’m still learning the role but I’m trying not to put limits on it,” Graham says of his switch to the back row.
“That was the best thing that happened when I made the transition – ‘Flanno’ [stood-down coach Shane Flanagan] never put any rules or boundaries on me. He just wanted me to go out and play football, listen, keep my head up and work with the halves and know when it’s time to ball-play, and when it’s time to run… that’s probably been the best thing.
“It’s like being a kid again… That’s the best thing that’s happened to me over the past 18 months, just being allowed to go out and play again.
“There are a few [players I model my game on] and when I made the transition from the halves to the forwards there were a few players I watched. Obviously one was Greg Bird, another was Luke Lewis, a big friend of mine growing up… I’ve known Luke for a long time, and he’s got that too – the football and the ball-playing forward.
“Reni Maitua’s similar to me and I watched him too because he plays that left edge and threatens with ball-playing… they’re the kind of guys I do a lot of research on and get tips from.”
Now a genuine Shire boy, Graham says the feeling in the area – and in the team in particular – is positive despite recent speculation about the future of the club.
“I only just moved down to Cronulla at the end of last year,” Graham, who now lives in Lilli Pilli in a house he recently purchased, says.
“I travelled down from Blacktown for my first year at Cronulla, then I moved in with a mate and lived at Maroubra for 12 months which was good because it was close enough but it was out of the area when I wanted to get away from footy. It was nice but it was only really as a means to get by until I could buy down here… I took my time and found a place I liked in November and I’m loving it down here.
“It’s nice and close to training, most of the team live down here so we’re not far from each other… We’ve got a real close-knit group down here at Cronulla and the team spends a lot of time together.”
Graham says the new-look Cronulla squad, featuring one of the strongest rosters in the competition including new recruits Michael Gordon, Luke Lewis, Beau Ryan and Chris Heighington, has the potential to achieve great things in 2013.
“It is a good team on paper but we’re under no illusions,” Graham says. “Early on in your career you learn pretty quickly that names on paper mean nothing – it’s about what you do on the field. We’ve got a lot of hard work to do – and even without all that’s happened the last few weeks… there are no excuses. We have the personnel and it’s up to us to do the right things on and off the field and with a bit of luck we can be successful.”
The Sharks’ quest for that long-awaited success continues against the Rabbitohs at ANZ Stadium. Kick-off is 7pm.