Englishman Graham redefines Aussie prop role

You probably have your own description of an Australian-made front-rower, derived from some combination of qualities that fit the traditional model. If you're big on toughness, aggression, fisticuffs, strength, and hard yakka, a few guys stand out. 

Those rough-heads with rough mullets from the leather-bound days, whose exterior appearance was in opposite proportion to their ability to carry a football, always come to mind first. 

But in this modern age of European-styled hair, tattoos of your name on places you need a mirror to read, and hot pink boots, then James Graham stands out – and it's not just because of his passport. 

He was already an England international before he arrived at the Bulldogs, but few were certain Graham would be a roaring success in Australia. Even the man himself couldn't imagine how his Merseyside-formed abilities would stand up in the NRL heat when he first got here three years ago. 

But if his magnum opus, last week's rundown of a flying Mahe Fonua, didn't turn shake your idea of what a front-rower can do, then chances are nothing will.

"Everyone talks about his ball-playing ability," Bulldogs teammate Aidan Tolman says, "but for me, it's his defensive work. And there was a trysaver on the weekend where Fonua tripped over and he was there on top of him. 

"They're those plays that I think about. I know he's a ball player, but if you're not willing to turn up in defence... he's just always there."

For his part, Graham says his confidence has come on in leaps and bounds since he joined Canterbury.

"I feel like I know I can perform at this level. Whereas before when I came out, there was a lot of self-doubt there," he says. 

"I had played in a lot of big games back home but I guess there was always that thing, that aura about the NRL, being an Englishman and wondering whether I could find my feet. 

"I think I've said before, I was worried about whether I could even make a tackle, it was one of those stupid things that actually went into my head when I came over. I guess I'm aware that I can actually compete and last out there, so to speak."

Those on-field hurdles are made just that little bit bigger when you include the off-field challenges that come with moving countries, like learning the culture, the climate, and the smaller circle of friends. 

"It's just a bit weird, I guess. I mean, I knew what I was getting myself in for by moving here and it was a choice that I made. No one forced me to do it," he says. 

"And really, if it bothered me that much, I'd hand my resignation in and get a flight home. But no, I really enjoy it here. 

"There are times where you do miss certain milestones, so to speak, back home with friends, et cetera. But that's just part of it. That's the job that I do. I wouldn't change it, I wouldn't swap it."

In fact, Graham's imprint on the Bulldogs has been so heavy, so defined, that he'd be the leading contender to replace the boots of his departing skipper Michael Ennis next season. 

"For sure. I think so," Tolman says when asked whether his fellow prop could take over the club captaincy. "He was captain of his club in England and he was captain of England for a World Cup as well. Definitely, he's got leadership qualities and there's plenty of leaders in our side."

Moreover, the 29-year-old is wondering if he might ever want out. This England-manufactured big bopper re-signed for another four years back in March, a contract that will take him all the way to 33. And even then he couldn't guarantee a return home. 

"There's a potential. It is an option, I think. I think part of this deal is permanent residency as well," he says, before realising the magnitude of his response. 

"Oh god. I guess maybe Australia could be home, maybe after football. It is a possibility. I don't really like to plan things too far, and who knows where rugby will take me at the back end of my career. [But] yeah, I guess there is an option for me to stay here without football being a reason to be here."