Gary Graham celebrated being called up into England’s Brighton training camp by helping Newcastle inflict further pain on London Irish before being backed by director of rugby Dean Richards to challenge for a Six Nations spot.
The uncapped Newcastle flanker, a surprise pick in Eddie Jones’s 34-man squad to train on the south coast this week, enjoyed a steady if unspectacular performance against bottom-of-the-table Irish on Saturday as Richards men made in five wins from five in December in all competitions.
The 25-year-old son of former Newcastle and Scotland hooker George Graham has been called up as Bath youngster Sam Underhill continues to battle concussion-related symptoms and could make a late push for inclusion in England’s Six Nations squad.
“He doesn’t take a backward step,” Richards said after his team recorded their first win at the Madejski Stadium since 2009.
“He’s like his old man in that respect. He’s a good footballer and very hard-nosed about the way he plays. He takes the game to the opposition week in and week out.”
The inclusion in England’s squad of Graham, a former Scotland Under 20s player who was born in Stirling, has not been universally welcomed north or south of the border.
Earlier this year the RFU successfully lobbied World Rugby for international qualification criteria to be extended to five years of residency but Graham qualifies on the current three-year rule English rugby’s hierarchy has claimed damages less well-resourced nations.
Jones has made it clear he is not interested in where players are born, only if they qualify.
“My job is to pick English-qualified players,” he said earlier this year after calling up New Zealand born players Jason Woodward and Willi Heinz. “It doesn't matter they are born in Tasmania or Timbuktu or New Zealand or Northampton or Bedford. I don't look at where they are born.”
Graham’s father George played 25 times for Scotland, as well as winning the Premiership with Newcastle in 1998, and Richards joked the Scottish-born player’s selection in England’s training squad may not even be universally welcomed in his own family.
“I hope he’s involved in the Six Nations,” Richards said. “It would be absolutely fantastic but I don’t know if his father would like that. We’ll see.”
Newcastle refused to put Graham up to speak to the attended media at the Madejski Stadium on Saturday, as is customary when an uncapped player is selected for England, insisting he “did not want his name splashed all over the newspapers” before he attends next week’s camp.
Instead, his director of rugby was left to field questions about his young charge and fellow back row players Will Welsh and Mark Wilson, who were unlucky to miss out on inclusion in Jones’s squad after impressing this season.
“Gary’s played well this year and deserves to be there but I’m disappointed for Mark Wilson that he’s not there as well,” Richards said. “Will Welsh plays well week in week out. We’ve got a good group of back row boys who turn it on week in and week out.”
Newcastle’s victory, courtesy of two first-half tries from Alex Tait and one from Vereneki Goneva, leaves Nick Kennedy’s London Irish side rooted to the foot of the Aviva Premiership table and in grave danger of being plunged straight back into the Championship a season after being promoted.
Eleven defeats in 11 matches tells its own story and only Northampton’s extraordinary implosion and fellow strugglers Worcester’s return visit on 25 February give Kennedy’s men even the remotest glimmer of hope they can stave off relegation.
Greig Tonks 77th minute penalty earned them a bonus point on Saturday which could yet prove invaluable by the end of the season, dragging the Exiles to within nine points of Worcester at the foot of the Premiership table.
But it was small comfort. Over 80 minutes the Exiles produced almost nothing of attacking value and look odds on favourites to go down.
The opposite can be said of Graham, however. His star appears to be very much on the rise.
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