Impressive milestones await Graham
It has been another dramatic week in the Cowboys' season of frustration with the James Tamou drink-driving affair, the desperate need to nurse Johnathan Thurston back to fitness and external speculation about Neil Henry's coaching security.
But amidst all that is the understated and quietly spoken journeyman, Cowboys winger Ash Graham – the steady-headed, unlikely survivor who has history at his fingertips in his last season before retirement. He is on the verge of some achievements that shouldn't go unnoticed as he prepares for the clash with the Dragons at WIN Stadium on Friday night.
Graham, the Cairns-raised 29-year-old in almost certainly his last NRL season after making his debut for the Eels as an 18-year-old in 2002, travels to Wollongong just one try away from joining Ty Williams as the second most productive try-scorer in the Cowboys' history with 85 tries (the injured Matt Bowen is streaks ahead on 125).
And the following week he has the chance to join an elite group to have played 200 NRL matches and scored 100 tries; currently he is on 102 career tries going into his 199th first grade appearance on Friday night. It's a tribute to how, at just 88kg and 186cm, Graham has been able to adapt to the sideline land of giants and big-leapers for the high ball on the wings.
Graham is not the sort of player to consider statistics, but he'll admit that the achievements will be something he'll be proud of – particularly as the winger's role has changed so dramatically over the past decade. He has bigger fish to fry just now, like ending the Cowboys' five-match losing streak.
"Those stats are something I'll look back on when I retire, but now I'm far too focused on the team and getting us back on track," Graham told NRL.com.
"It's obvious that we need to win this weekend if we want to make the finals, there is no doubt about that. We can't wait another week. We have come a long way from previous years when we used to struggle throughout a season to having squad that we know can compete against anyone, so we expect to make the finals.
"We have some players out [brilliant fullback Matt Bowen who is injured and Australian Test prop James Tamou who has been stood down] but we still have the players to perform.
"Finishing sets off our sets has been the problem; we have showed we can roll up the field but once we get down the other end we're struggling to execute and get over the try line. I don't think we can criticise our effort, we just have to execute a lot better."
Cowboys general manager of football Peter Parr, who has been through ups and downs at the club since 2002, knows it is the unsung professionals like Graham that the club needs right now. And he's confident the side can shake off the current pressures and relaunch their season.
"To play 200 NRL games is a great achievement when you think Ash had to come back from a serious ankle injury early in his career at the Eels and then a back injury that was similar to Jharal Yow Yeh. There are a lot more powerful, bigger and faster wingers around but he just continues to get the job done for us. He's a real pro."
The Cowboys are certainly under pressure with the James Tamou drink misdemeanour and suspension, the media heat on coach of five seasons (and three as assistant coach from 2003-06) Neil Henry and the fact they are now on equal competition points with last-placed Parramatta.
One man the Cowboys need to stand-up is Ashton Sims, who will take on extra responsibility with Tamou missing. He'll have to play a lot more than his average 25 minutes and make more than his average 80 metres, but Parr feels he's up to the task. "I think he'll see this as a real opportunity to play more minutes and lead the side," he said.
Desperation will certainly be at a premium as 11 Origin or Test players will be on show for two teams each badly needing victory to retain any hope of playing finals footy.
The Cowboys, who have been through plenty of ruts over the years, remain positive. One thing is for certain, according to Parr, this squad is best equipped than any other to ride out of their doldrums.
"The ability and attitude is there to get us out of this hole," he says. "There is a real desire in the squad and I have faith in them. Sometimes things don't go according to plan but you can't feel sorry for ourselves and we can't allow any frustration to cause us to implode. And we won't."
Graham is genuine when he says the morale is good, distractions nothing unusual and the support of Henry is solid.
"There have been distractions all year but we're sticking together as a team," he said. "It's a test of character of the side. We know we have players to come out of this; we need to stick together, put a performance on the field for 80 minutes and show we're a side that should be in the finals.
"We're close knit; we're used to sticking solid. The speculation about the coach has made us stronger as a group to be honest, we fully support Neil but we have to show that on the field; that's where it counts."