A player like Ashley Graham – a freakish finisher who’s touched down for 98 tries in 191 NRL matches – has every right to talk himself up. But, even after 12 years at the top and a hot streak of form that has him labelled league’s most talented winger never to play Origin, last year’s equal top try-scorer simply refuses to self-promote.
“I go out each week to do my job for the team – I’m not really a flashy player and I don’t demand the headlines the other guys do, and I’m happy to take a backseat and just complete my role within a team,” Graham, preparing to take on the Warriors in New Zealand on Monday night, tells NRL.com.
“Last year I was pretty fortunate, a lot of the tries I scored were just through finishing off what people inside me had created. It’s always good to get across the line, but scoring tries doesn’t really indicate you’re playing well.”
Talking himself down comes easy to the Cairns Kangaroos junior, one of the NRL’s finest finishers who was plucked from the local leagues and brought to Sydney as a teenager. The former Eel, after all, has some great players on his Cowboys team.
“It makes my job of scoring tries really easy with the dudes inside me – blokes like ‘JT’ (Johnathan Thurston) and ‘Mango’ (Matt Bowen) doing all the hard work and creating things and I’m just finishing them off,” Graham says.
“It probably makes me look a little better than what I probably am at times, I suppose. Some tries I have to work for, but some I’m just catching them and putting them down – I can’t give myself much credit!
“As long as I’m doing my job within the team, I suppose that’s what makes me happy when I walk off the field.”
For Graham, 2013 marks two major milestones. The former five-year Eel is desperately close to breaking a century of tries in the top grade, and he’s just nine games off a double tonne, too. Perhaps the biggest talking point, though, is his lack of opportunity to represent his beloved Maroons in State of Origin.
“Two hundred games is quite a big milestone and it’s something I’ll be extremely proud of,” Graham admits.
“In 2002 I made my debut and I guess to get the opportunity to get to play one NRL game was something I was extremely proud of too, and to be able to play for what, this is now my 12th season in the NRL… I’m looking forward to getting there.
“Obviously Benny Barba’s tries are a lot different to mine, but scoring 100 tries would definitely be something I would look back on when I retire and be quite proud of [too]… but at the moment I’m more worried about helping the Cowboys winning games than worried about milestones like that.”
Playing at representative level, though, is still on Graham’s to-do list – a bucket list item he definitely wants to cross off before he hangs up the boots.
“Growing up as a kid you always want to represent your state, and not playing Origin is I guess something I can be pretty disappointed in,” Graham says.
“But in saying that when I do [reflect] I can know I’ve played to the best of my ability and I guess it was unfortunate that at the time I was playing there were some really freakish dudes playing on the wings and in the centres [for Queensland]… it’s disappointing but I guess I’m still playing this year so I’m still a chance, I suppose!
“I’ve never really spoken with [the selectors], but I know I’ve been pretty close for a few years, but I know if I keep playing good footy I give myself a chance. If it’s not to be it’s not to be – it’s not something I’m going to dwell on or get disappointed about, but in saying that to play for Queensland is the greatest honour in rugby league so it’s something I’d love to do before I finish.”
The end of his career could be closer than most expect, too. Graham is currently weighing up a decision about what to do from 2014 and beyond.
“I’m off contract at the end of this year and I’ll see how the body’s feeling and how I’m feeling mentally then,” Graham reveals.
“I’m 29 this year, [retirement] is definitely an option and something I have thought about, but it’s not something I’m going to make my mind up about now and say ‘I’m going to retire’. I’ll see how I’m travelling through the year and if I’m going alright. If I’m playing like I am now, I’ll be looking to continue.”
Graham’s career has been one he can be truly proud of, especially for a bloke who, once again, doesn’t consider himself anything special.
“I signed with Parra in Grade 12 through school carnivals and what not, and went down and lived with Noel Cleal for the first year,” he says.
“It happened really quickly I suppose, and getting the opportunity to play under Brian Smith who was coach at the time, was something that was obviously good for my footy.
“Obviously being a North Queensland boy, I always wanted to come back at some stage and play for the Cowboys at some stage of my career and in 2006 I got the opportunity when the club offered me a two-year deal. Although I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Parramatta, I was kind of missing home and when the opportunity came up it was too good to pass up and it’s proven the best decision of my career.
“For myself, I’m not the most skillful or talented player, I’ve always been pretty professional in my approach. I’ve always looked after my body in preparation for games and after them as well, and that’s probably helped my longevity.”
This season, which could prove his last in the NRL, Graham is excited about what can be achieved in North Queensland, even after a “pretty disappointing” start.
“[I want to] win a premiership for the Cowboys. We’ve definitely got the squad at the moment that can achieve that,” Graham admits.
“We’ve got the squad and we’re working hard and going to turn things around. Hopefully it’s going to be a very good year for us!”
Just don’t ask Graham to talk himself up, though.