Wade Graham is living proof of why Sydney Roosters sensation Joseph Suaalii is expected to handle the step up to the NRL at 17 years of age.
The Cronulla captain will celebrate his 250th NRL appearance against Canberra just days after the Roosters were given the green light to select Suaalii before his 18th birthday.
Graham was one of the last players to make their NRL debut before the introduction of the rule that they must be 18 when chosen by Penrith at five-eighth for the first match of the 2008 season against St George Illawarra.
“I played eight games and I tore my medial so I was out for the rest of the season but that wasn’t age related, it happens in the game all the time,” Graham said ahead of his milestone match on Sunday night at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium.
“For me, the hardest thing was trying to contain my excitement every week because I was playing with guys who were literally my heroes – guys like Luke Lewis, Tony Puletua, Rhys Wesser and Petero Civoniceva. In my second game I played against Darren Lockyer.”
Even at 17, Graham was bigger and heavier than some of the halves he played against and 98kg Suaalii is bigger still.
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The former Kangaroos and Blues second-rower supported the NRL’s decision to allow Suaalii to become the first debutant under the age of 18 since Jason Taumalolo with North Queensland in 2010.
However, he warned that Suaalii would find the demands of playing NRL on a weekly basis a difficult adjustment and suggested restrictions be placed on how frequently he could play before turning 18.
“Trent Robinson [Roosters coach] and the performance staff are with him every day and they see him train with the men, they see what he is physically like and they understand mentally where he is at as a man,” Graham said.
“I doubt no matter how good he is that a club or coach would ever put a kid at risk by putting him out there if they thought he wasn’t ready.
“But if you want to put some protection around it maybe just cap the amount of games they can play before turning 18 because the one game, two games or three games here or there are okay.
“It is just playing the whole season that burns you out. He turns 18 in August so if he has to miss one out of every four games, he only misses four or five games.
“It is not playing one, two or three weeks, it is trying to back up every week but if you look at me, I am 30 years old and by the end of the season I will be beat up.”
Contracted to Cronulla for two more seasons, Graham is likely to celebrate his 300th game with the club he helped to a premiership in 2016 after turning down an approach from North Queensland to join the Sharks in 2011.
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A phone call from former Cronulla captain Paul Gallen swayed his decision and has earned Graham “favourite player” status with Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
“Obviously going up to the Cowboys and playing with Johnathan Thurston was a pretty big lure for a kid but thankfully he listened to me and came here,” Gallen said.
“I remember he played against us one night at Penrith and scored two or three tries as a kid, playing five-eighth, so I loved him from the start as a player and when there was the chance I said ‘let’s get him’.
“To win a comp with him and play State of Origin with him, and see him play for his country, it has been a highlight for me to see him grow after coming here as an 18 or 19-year-old.”
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Graham said the game has changed since he began playing more than a decade ago.
“It was a lot more structured, the wrestle was in full swing then,” he said. “It changes a little bit every year, it’s in small increments, but to be in the game for so long you need to constantly adjust your game to have that longevity.”
He is anticipating a text message from the Prime Minister before the game, while his parents Mark and Debbie will present him with his 250th jersey.
“You play to make your mum and dad proud and early on in my career that is all I wanted to do - to play well and make sure any success I had reflected well on them,” Graham said.
“Now I have a family of my own so it has certainly been a long journey and it is going to be special for them to be in the shed with me.”
Asked about his relationship with Morrison, Graham said: “He will probably send me a message. He loves his footy and he is a massive Sharks fan. He came to our season launch the other day and I sat with him and we had a good discussion. He was so excited to have the season back."
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