St George Illawarra Dragons Season in Review
The decision to join the St George Illawarra Dragons was made easier for James Graham by the fact his contract negotiations were done with the person who handed him his senior debut 15 years ago in England.
Graham was a 17-year-old rookie when St Helens coach Ian Millward called him up to play alongside the likes of Keiron Cunningham, Sean Long and Paul Wellens in the 2003 Super League match against Castleford at Knowsley Road.
While that was his only first-grade appearance of the season, Graham played another two years under Millward and credits him for instilling a work ethic that has enabled the 32-year-old to remain one of the best props in the game for more than a decade.
As he considered a move from Canterbury at the end of last season, Graham met Dragons coach Paul McGregor and Millward, the club's director of rugby league pathways, and immediately felt comfortable.
"Ian was actually the coach at the time of me making my first-team debut so it was really nice to have a familiar face involved. That definitely helped," Graham told NRL.com from England, where he was visiting family after the World Cup.
"He handed me my debut shirt, but it was more than just my first-team debut. Ian was the first coach to have me when rugby became serious.
"He had been a really successful coach at St Helens and I was a young teenager at the club before I got the chance to play first grade. At 16, there were a few of us who would go and train with the first team in school holidays and at other times, just to get a taste of it.
"It was at that time I really started thinking about my game, and Ian and the players taught me about the extras culture and other things that really rubbed off. It was then I realised I had to do all these little things if I wanted to be part of a first-team squad and it was Ian who started me on that journey."
Graham was also impressed by McGregor, his vision for the Dragons and the culture within the club.
"I like how down to earth he is," Graham said. "He seems like he has got a lot of time for his players and he made a lot of time for me and my family when we went down to Wollongong.
"Once things turned to rugby I was really impressed with what he was saying. If you look back to St George Illawarra's season last year, he pointed out a couple of areas that went really well and other areas that didn't go so well."
After winning six of their opening seven matches, the Dragons slid down the Telstra Premiership ladder before dropping out of the top eight five weeks from the end of the regular season to finish ninth.
They lost five matches by less than six points and another by seven points to Newcastle after a 79th-minute Trent Hodkinson field goal.
Graham believes the Dragons are capable of winning a premiership during the term of his three-year contract – particularly with halfback Ben Hunt from the Brisbane Broncos.
"It is clear to see that it is club with massive potential these next few years," Graham said.
"One of the great things about the NRL is that it is very hard to pick who is going to win our competition and with St George Illawarra I think there is a huge chance of something happening there. That was probably the biggest influence on my decision.
"With someone like Ben Hunt coming in, if you can change a couple of those one-to-six point losses to one-to-six point wins you are starting to look at definitely top eight and maybe top four. After that anything is possible."
While Hunt will help skipper Gareth Widdop steer the team around, Graham will provide leadership up front and the experience of 360 matches for St Helens (225) and the Bulldogs (135), as well as 40 Tests for England (35) and Great Britain (five).
He and Widdop were two of the stars of the England team which made their first World Cup final since 1995 and lost 6-0 to Australia in a gripping final on December 2 at Suncorp Stadium.
"Gareth was outstanding for England both at No.6 and at fullback, and I am looking forward to playing with him more regularly," Graham said of Widdop, whose absence with a knee injury suffered in round eight coincided with a three-game losing streak for the Dragons.
"I think he is a quality, quality player and when you think back to last year, until he picked up that injury he was leading the race for the Dally M and up there with the best halves in the game."
Despite England's World Cup performance earning widespread praise, Graham remains bitterly disappointed by the narrow loss.
However, he believes the tournament was a turning point for the international game and urged officials to schedule more regular matches for the likes of Tonga and ensure England's proposed Test against New Zealand in Denver next June goes ahead.
"That match in Denver is an absolute must for me. I can't speak strongly enough about that," Graham said. "I understand that there might be some concerns from the clubs about player welfare but it is too important for the game to miss out on this opportunity. It could be huge.
"If the right people in the right positions make the right decisions now, we could look back in 20 or 30 years and say 'wow, that 2017 World Cup changed our game at an international level'.
"I honestly think this could be a springboard for our game and I hope the powers that be are asking questions like 'how can we replicate this, how can we do this more often, how can we get Tonga involved in big international rugby league games every year – not just at the World Cup'."