Graham aims to beat the Aussies...then join them
England's flame-haired forward takes on the old enemy in the final tonight before heading Down Under
Dave Hadfield was a schoolboy convert to rugby league, the game which, one way or another, has dominated his life ever since. After working for newspapers in Shropshire and Blackpool (where he covered the fortunes of Blackpool Borough) he travelled the world, working mainly in Hong Kong and Sydney. He became The Independent's rugby league man in 1990 and has written five books on the game and broadcast extensively for Sky and the BBC. Dave played his last game at the age of 53 and would have set up a try if anyone could have been bothered supporting his break. When not writing about the sport, he now limits himself to a bit of tick and pass with his local club, the Bolton Mets. Family includes supporters - of varying degrees of dedication - of Salford, Wigan, Sheffield Eagles and St George Illawarra.
Saturday 19 November 2011
Any lad from Maghull – in deepest, round ball-obsessed Merseyside – who decides that the game for him is rugby league, is used to choosing his own direction in life.
Thus it is that the biggest game of James Graham's career so far will take place today, and will also be his last as a British-based player. He is leaving St Helens, the club to which he gravitated from Liverpool, for a new life in Sydney with the Canterbury Bulldogs.
Testing himself on a weekly basis in the NRL against the sort of player he will be facing in the Four Nations final at Elland Road tonight is something that he has had on his agenda for a long time – and not something Saints could talk him out of.
"I'd really made my mind up. I think [Saints' coach] Royce Simmons appreciated me being honest. He just shook my hand and wished me all the best. If you're going, you want to go out with a final. The Four Nations final in 2009 was pretty big, but this is right up there."
That was a frustrating night two years ago for Graham and his team-mates, as Australia ran away with the final in the second half. There was frustration of a different kind for him the last time the two teams met, at Wembley two weeks ago, when he was forced off the field with back spasms.
He was trying to pace the touchline. "But the medics were telling me I could not go back on and really I knew I couldn't," says Graham, who does not, as a rule, hide his annoyance well and was a picture of helpless rage.
"The back spasms are just something that happen occasionally, and I can't do anything about. I've had scans and they don't show any damage," he says.
More reassuring is the way he got through a heap of work, including scoring an important try, against New Zealand last week. He asked the Kiwis – and will hopefully ask Australia – different questions from those usually posed by front-rowers in the modern game.
You never quite know as a defender against Graham whether he is going to go into crunching collision, or slip the ball before he gets to you.
Although it has not yet been fully reflected in results, Graham has been part of a period of relative abundance of top-class British props. This could mark a turning point, because with him and the currently injured Sam Burgess in Australia and Jamie Peacock and Adrian Morley going into their mid-thirties, the domestic cupboard will not look quite as well stocked.
Graham is adamant that he will want to be available for England on every possible occasion, but he also has to prove himself in Australia the way that others have done. He is going into a slightly uncertain situation, because Canterbury have had an unscheduled change of coach since signing him.
"Nothing's changed for me. I just want to play as well as I can for the team I'm playing for," says Graham, who flies out for the start of pre-season training with the Bulldogs on 1 December.
Along with his boots and kit, he will be packing plenty of heavy duty sun-cream, because his combination of red hair and pale complexion makes him vulnerable to sunburn. "I've been stocking up on the factor 50. People joke about it, but it's something I have to be careful with," he says. But it may not just be sunscreen he declares when he lands in Sydney – he may have a Four Nations winner's medal in the bag.
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