Graham 'the next Rooney' as Saints hit Mersey beat

Face to follow for 2004: Talented rugby league prop from Liverpool symbolises St Helens' development
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The Independent Online

He is only 18 and has made just a solitary first-team appearance, but James Graham has already served notice that he is a player for the future.

Graham is a rugby league oddity, a player from the football stronghold of Liverpool, who has been nurtured up the East Lancashire Road in St Helens. That gives him a certain symbolic importance in Saints' long-term development, but his emergence is not quite the fluke it might appear.

For one thing, Saints have been deliberately casting their net on Merseyside. For another, his dad is an exiled Cumbrian, who gave him a subtle nudge in the direction of rugby league.

The result is that Graham has been travelling to play for schoolboy teams in St Helens since he was seven, but it was in 2003 that he came to the notice of the wider world. Playing for the England Under-17 side that beat their contemporaries from the Australian Institute of Sport, Graham was the man of the match in both games, prompting the England coach, Stuart Wilkinson, to predict "a great career in the game".

Playing at prop, Graham dominated the forward exchanges in a way that suggests Saints have indeed got a special talent on their hands. However, his club coach, Ian Millward, is cautious about pushing him too far, too soon.

"He's been going well in his age group and showing a lot of promise. We'll give him the opportunities this year, but people are jumping on the bandwagon a bit too quickly and expectations are already very high," Millward said. "There's still a long way to go, although he's outstanding for his age."

Graham, whose all-action style of play and red hair make him doubly eye-catching on the field, has already set himself the target of forcing Millward's hand next season - although Saints should be a little better off for front-rowers than they were last year.

His coach certainly plans for him to make first-team appearances in 2004; his headache is what to do with him the rest of the time. "There's a bit of a lack of competitive rugby between age-group rugby and Super League," Millward admitted, hinting perhaps at loaning him to a smaller club at some stage.

"But him being successful is important to our long-term strategy. We've been very active in Liverpool. We see it very much as our backyard."

Saints have already unearthed other promising young players from the city, as well as making considerable progress with the business community on the Mersey. It has been an idea taking shape at St Helens for some time now; that, hemmed in as they are by professional clubs on their other three sides, their hinterland is Liverpool.

The fact that Graham hails from there suggests a comparison to Millward: "He could be a bit like Wayne Rooney - too good at his age group and the subject of such expectation when he gets on to the pitch. I've always earmarked him as one who will make it, but we've just got to not get too carried away."

Graham is still doing his A-Levels - in PE, Psychology and Religious Studies - but is prepared to put those on the back-burner in order to concentrate on trying to make his mark at St Helens.

Good young props are always highly sought-after; to have found one in the unlikely setting of a football-mad city sounds a little too good to be true. There are, however, precedents. One of Saints' best-ever props was Cliff Watson, born in London and playing rugby union in the Midlands when he answered a speculative newspaper advert.

If Graham turns out to be half as good as that, the club will be more than happy.