'I didn't have a clue what league was,' says new England captain

James Graham caps a stellar rise against New Zealand tomorrow
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The Independent Online

Growing up in the strictly round-ball sporting environment of Maghull in Liverpool, there were few things further from James Graham's mind than captaining England at rugby league.

"I didn't have a clue what rugby league was," he recalls. Fortunately, what he did have was a father from the stronghold of west Cumbria who had kept his links with the game of his own youth. He offered to take his son to an amateur club in St Helens, to see whether the affinity with the code had been inherited. It had.

"The lads at school said I must be mad, but that was it for me. I was one of seven, so it was a good effort from my dad. He didn't do it, though, so that I could be a professional player or captain my country. It was just something he did for his son."

The England squad in New Zealand for their opening game in the Four Nations tomorrow have reason to be pleased that he did. The loss of Jamie Peacock before departure and Adrian Morley after six minutes of the warm-up match in Auckland means that Graham has, quite unexpectedly, inherited the captaincy for the game against the Kiwis in Wellington.

At 25, it is something of an understatement to say that Graham has limited experience of leadership. He has captained St Helens a grand total of once, at the Catalan Dragons in 2006, although he did lead the England Academy tour to Australia and New Zealand two years earlier.

That trip brought the rare experience of a victory over an Australian Schoolboys side which included, among others, Greg Inglis, and a defeat by the Junior Kiwis, with one of tomorrow's opponents, Manu Vatuvei, in their ranks.

"And he was just as big then as he is now," Graham says. Since then at Saints Graham has played under the leadership of Sean Long and Keiron Cunningham and says he has learnt plenty from them.

Likewise Peacock, who would have led this tour but for a serious knee injury and who has been in touch to offer congratulations. It will be on the template of Peacock's style of leadership by example that Graham will base his approach, although there are some subtle differences.

He is renowned as one of the game's most vocal players, sometimes to the detriment of his relationship with referees. He concedes that he might have to curb that streak of hot-headedness, something that seems to fit neatly with his flame-red hair.

"But nothing much else will change," he says. "I've always had a lot to say in the dressing rooms. Now I'll just have a little 'c' next to my name and I get to run out first."

England will run out at the Westpak Stadium, without having a great deal expected of them, unlike his last visit to the antipodes for the 2008 World Cup. "There was a lot of hype about how well we were going to do, but this time nobody's expecting much from us," he says. "But everyone's entitled to their opinion; it's not North Korea."

As a career prop, Graham is not buying into the Kiwi coach Stephen Kearney's suggestion this week that conventional front-row forwards have somehow become moribund in the modern game.

"It's still a quality front-row that New Zealand have selected. They might have gone for more mobile props, but there's still a job that needs to be done."

The England coach, Steve McNamara, says Graham has started his job off the field in impressive fashion, even if he says himself that he is less than comfortable with the media and glad-handing side of his responsibilities.

"He's been brilliant," McNamara says. "He gives everyone around him a lift. He's a very focused young man and a very intelligent player."

The proof of his captaincy credentials will be seen on the field tomorrow, but Graham has one thing in common with Peacock and Morley. He is respected Down Under.

That is likely to translate into offers to play in the NRL after his Saints contract expires next year. He is not thinking or talking about that now, however, because all his attention is on being the leader that England need tomorrow.