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Lionheart: Graham's lasting impact in 400-game career

James Graham called the St George Illawarra players together the day before last year's stunning 48-18 elimination final defeat of Brisbane and declared: "I'm going off."

Graham, who was playing his first season in the Red V, told his teammates they could overcome a late-season form slump to win the Telstra Premiership and he would be doing all he could to ensure their success.

If Graham seemed a little "crazier" than usual during the sudden-death playoff, he wanted them to know why and the English prop then took it upon himself to target Broncos enforcer Josh McGuire from the opening set in an inspirational performance.

Those who have played with him at St Helens and Canterbury or at Test level with England and Great Britain tell of similar experiences in big matches.

Leading into Graham's 400th premiership appearance on Saturday, has spoken to a raft of former teammates and others who have been involved with him throughout his career.

While he is credited with changing the way front-rowers now play with his ball-playing skills, it seems Graham has changed little since his debut for St Helens in 2003.

The 33-year-old has always been passionate, determined, fiercely competitive, loyal, outspoken, inspirational, adaptable and with a work ethic virtually unrivalled across the game.

James Graham reveals the person who really opens up his softer side

He is also highly superstitious and a "diva" in the dressing room, while Bulldogs players believe Graham had never been on a treadmill before he moved to the NRL in 2012 as he went flying off the back of one at his first gym session with the club.

At his first training session as a 16-year-old with the St Helens senior squad, he beat the likes of Paul Wellens, Keiron Cunningham, Paul Sculthorpe and Jon Wilkin in a beep test and he made a similar impression when he arrived at the Dragons last season.

"It was a fitness testing day and we did the yo-yo test," hooker Cameron McInnes recalled. "Obviously he did really well in that but afterwards he was doing extra fitness. He was doing it on his own and as time went on the other front-rowers started doing it with him."

Graham's impact on teammates is one of the reasons Dragons director of pathways Ian Millward was so keen to reunite with him 15 years after handing the Liverpool-born teen his Super League debut for St Helens against Castleford.

"The biggest thing I could say about James is that he was enthusiastic then, he loved rugby league then, he was so passionate about his training, game day and being involved and people ask what is he like now compared to when you first met him and he has not changed one bit," Millward said.

"He is still the same person, he still has time for everyone, he is still passionate, he still loves rugby league and rugby league stories so from the day he started to now he is no different.

What sums up James Graham?

"Sometimes when I see him at the Dragons I feel like I have gone back 16 years."

While he has earned accolades for tackling a runaway Corey Oates over the sideline after running across field in cover, or his 80-metre pursuit of Kangaroos centre Josh Dugan to stop him scoring near the posts during the 2017 World Cup final, Graham has been training for those moments since he was young.

He also practises getting himself set to defend a 20-metre tap after a kick has gone dead by running to the try line and sprinting back to the 30-metre line to be in position for a quick restart.

Graham scores a try for St Helens.
Graham scores a try for St Helens.

"Over the years I've seen it come into his game and it is little things like that have made him the great player he is," former St Helens and Test teammate Leon Pryce said.

England and South Sydney coach Wayne Bennett said Graham had been an inspiration for his countrymen at international level and also to test themselves in the NRL.

"He has a real passion for the game and he is a guy you still see running 80 metres to make a tackle in the corner when everyone else has given up," Bennett said.

"That's what he brings and his performance against us [Souths] last week was remarkable. He made 60-odd tackles, he was only one game back from a broken leg but he was on the field for most of the night and no one tried harder than he did."

Saint James: St Helens 2003-2011

Cunningham, the former Great Britain and Wales hooker who played 496 matches for St Helens and later coached the club, recalls the impression Graham made the first time they met when he was playing for the club's academy team.

"He was this big thick-set, raw-boned, red-haired thing and there was a bit of a buzz around James," Cunningham said. "We did a bit of an opposed session and this kid shot out of the line and whacked me.

"The next time he was carrying the ball I thought 'right, I will just drop my shoulder into him and just put him back to where he belonged'.

"He was only 16 or 17 years old and it didn't bother him, he just got up and played the ball and carried on doing what he did.

A very young James Graham.
A very young James Graham.

"From that day forwards I knew he was going to be a superstar. He'd be the one chasing a winger back to try and push him into the corner before he scores, he would be the first on a kick-chase and he was always leading the line-up on play one.

"Even now, as one of the legends of the game, he is still doing those efforts that he did as a junior and he has built his reputation on the back of that."

Wilkin, who this year joined Toronto Wolfpack after 16 seasons at St Helens, said the senior players received an insight into Graham's competitiveness when he won the beep test at his first training session.

James was really socially awkward, I would say he had issues with anger as a younger man.

Jon Wilkin

"James was really socially awkward, I would say he had issues with anger as a younger man and he was competitive to the nth-degree. In fact, 'competitive' wouldn't even describe it well enough.

"He was fiercely passionate about winning, about competing and giving his best effort," Wilkin said.

"He had no social skills whatsoever but he just wanted to win. He is competing with himself all the time. He is also highly intelligent. Rugby league is blessed with a lot of gifted athletes and people who can do amazing things but there are very few who can combine intelligence and physical will."

Wellens, who played 499 matches for St Helens and is a member of Bennett's England coaching staff, said Graham had transformed the way front-rowers play in the NRL with his ball-playing skills.

"When he first went to the Bulldogs, one of the things I think he brought to the NRL was the ability to move the ball and bring other players into the game," Wellens said.

"I think a lot of front-rowers at the time were used as battering rams to cart the ball forward and get their team down the field but James bought that subtlety of play for a front-rower that I think hadn't been in the NRL for a number of years."

Pryce, who joined St Helens from Bradford in 2006, said by then Graham had become the "life and soul" of the team.

"He was always at the forefront of fitness and led by example. That was from a young age, really," Pryce said. "He is his own man and he doesn't really follow in people's footsteps, he makes his own footsteps. That is what I have always admired and respected about him.

"He says what he thinks and he is his own person. Not everyone has the bottle to say things that don't go down too well."

James Graham with the 2006 Super League Young Player of the Year award.
James Graham with the 2006 Super League Young Player of the Year award.

It is an indication of the respect the former St Helens greats have for Graham that they all wanted to pay tribute to him but some also wanted to tell of his off-field traits.

"He was a real diva when he was at Saints, he was very demanding of the backroom staff," Cunningham said.

"We would take the piss out of him screaming in his Scouse accent for water, wet towels, dry towels, Vaseline and energy drinks."

Pryce said: "Can I also mention that he is a diva. He makes people in the dressing room walk around and give him water or put Vaseline on him. You know about how we dyed his hair [black]. One other thing I will say is never touch his hair or he will go crazy".

British Bulldog: Canterbury 2012-17

It was Graham's superstitions that those at Belmore during his six seasons still talk about.

Graham would insist on driving the same route to training, he'd have to drink a bottle of soda water the night before a game and a Coke Zero on match day, eat the same meals and always sleep in the bed on the left side of the hotel room he shared with Josh Reynolds on trips away.

"He also wore a chest guard because he had an injury and then when he didn't have the injury anymore he kept wearing the chest guard and it was so rank that it just about got up and walked across the room by itself," former Canterbury CEO Raelene Castle said.

"He still wore it because he'd gone on a run of winning games wearing this chest guard."

However, it was the passion the Englishman had for the Bulldogs that left the greatest impression. Even two years on, many still question how the club could have let him go.

He was so committed to achieving premiership success with Canterbury that he offered to pay some of Reynolds contract so that the club could re-sign him.

"It's crazy for someone to do that and so selfless," Reynolds said. "He has got kids and a partner so for him to want to take food off his table and put it on mine just shows the guy he is."

The odd couple: Reynolds and Graham

Reynolds was reduced to tears as the departing Bulldogs captain used his farewell speech at the 2017 presentation awards to pay tribute to him.

Castle said Graham was a deep thinker and his bid to keep Reynolds had been one he considered at length before approaching the club.

"He didn't do that on the spur of the moment. It was something that he did out of genuine desire to want to keep someone he thought was a very good club man," the Rugby Australia boss said.

On the field he epitomises what determination looks like.

Raelene Castle

"James is the ultimate professional that squeezed every piece of potential out of his body through his attitude and his physical preparation. On the field he epitomises what determination looks like."

Reynolds said that playing alongside Graham made him “feel safe”, while the presence of a player he described as a “true warrior” provided comfort for former Canterbury captain Michael Ennis.

"You’d be sitting in your locker and just thinking about the game, then James would walk in with that steely look on his face that just meant business and it just gave me so much reassurance that I had someone in my team who was willing to put his body through things that others wouldn’t," Ennis said.

"As tough as he was and as relentless as he was, he was highly intelligent and understood the game so well as a front-rower, with the subtleties he had with his ball-playing for a big bloke."

James would walk in with that steely look on his face that just meant business.

Michael Ennis

Ennis said Graham had changed the dynamics of front-row play in the NRL.

"When James turned up from England, he was this wiry, barrel-chested redhead who didn’t have the chiselled physique of some of the modern blokes, but there was just this lion-hearted bloke inside who had this courage yet so much intellect on the game and could execute for a 110kg bloke better than some halves in the game," Ennis said.

"We were very lucky to have guys like Arthur Beetson or Steve Roach and every now and again there would be someone who came through with the ability to not only make that tough carry and put that big shot on, and play that enforcer role, but who had soft hands like a half.

"Now every team wants a bloke like that and when you talk about defining moments in our game I think that James changed the way the game was played for a middle forward in a lot of ways."

Off the field, Graham was also a player who wanted to continually improve and he modified his leadership style after the infamous Easter Friday incident of 2015 in which he aggressively pointed his finger at referee Gerard Sutton while arguing over a penalty that handed South Sydney victory.

"We had that really tough time with him during the bottle-throwing issue on Good Friday and he really felt he was in the right," Castle said.

"Even though we had some really challenging conversations during that period, once he got through his anger and he stepped back and reflected he realised he would be a better captain because of the experience and how he could improve his leadership and his engagement with referees and how he could be seen as someone who is respected."

Reynolds said: "When he is like that you can't stop him. That was boiling point. He just wants to win so much."

However, Reynolds said he had never seen Graham throw a punch and his only real blemish was the biting incident in the 2012 grand final, which he denied but received a 12-match ban.

If Graham did do it most people accept it was out of character as it is rarely mentioned, except in jest.

Reynolds said: "He's going to hate me for saying this but how can you forget the grand final. It's all on in the corner, Melbourne versus the Bulldogs, and punches are being thrown but James Graham decides to bite Billy Slater's ear.

"Every game with him, I have got so many good memories. Every battle with Sam Burgess was awesome. They just went after each other, they were brutal. They are great mates off the park but whenever we played against Souths I'd get excited because there was always a look in his eye.

"I don't know if they wanted to fight over who was the best Pommie. He would never let you down."

James Graham celebrates a win for Great Britain.
James Graham celebrates a win for Great Britain.

The Big Red V: St George Illawarra 2018-19

Millward's association with Graham helped the Dragons to snare him when the Bulldogs were trying to resolve salary cap issues at the end of 2017 and he is as highly regarded at the club as he was at Canterbury or St Helens.

McInnes, who is expected to take over from Gareth Widdop as captain next season, is Graham's roommate and said he had been learning from him about leadership.

"I remember watching him play for St Helens when I was younger because I was big into Super League but I never thought I'd have the opportunity to play with him and I consider him a close mate as well," McInnes said.

"He plays tougher than anyone and to have put his body through what he has and still be playing at the same level is incredible. 

"He has a good voice and he says the right things at the right time but it is mostly his actions because he goes above and beyond and you follow those guys.

"The way he plays is he leaves nothing left the tank and doing everything you can. That is why he is held in such high regard by everyone, not just his teammates but at other clubs and within the game itself."

Other Dragons players said they drew inspiration from Graham's pre-game speeches, like the one before last year's final in Brisbane.

"His speeches before games are pretty good," playmaker Corey Norman said.

"He gets everyone going and everyone knows that is James and how passionate he is about this team and this club so it is good.

Dragons: We won't give up

"He is one of those players everyone wants besides them. Some of the stuff he does, he is not all there – especially with his toughness. His ankle is probably still no good, he hurts it every week but he is still out there playing because he wants to do it for us and the club."

Centre Euan Aitken said: "He always shows his commitment and says stuff about how he is going to commit to the boys and tries to lead with his actions.

"He throws his body on the line trying to put a shot on and trying to rev the boys up and lift the morale. It definitely inspires the team."

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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