Written by Callum Walker
He’s one of the greatest to have ever played the game, but James Graham will hang up his boots at the end of this season after an illustrious career. Where did it all start?
In 2000, Graham – then just a junior – signed with St Helens, progressing all the way through Saints’ academy system before making his senior début against Castleford aged 18 in August 2003. Graham already had leadership experience after captaining the England Academy in a famous series victory in Australia in 2004 and his performances at prop as a youngster demonstrated his potential from an early age.
It was only when Graham was in his early 20s that he became a formidable figure in the St Helens pack, playing a significant role in the Lancashire club’s Challenge Cup and Grand Final successes in 2006. His role was recognised as he obtained his first national cap that year as well as being awarded the Super League Young Player of the Year and a place in the Dream Team too.
Going from strength to strength, 2007 was a year in which the prop forward earned recognition from his club, winning Saints’ Young Player of the Year and being rewarded with a new contract as Saints won the Challenge Cup for a second year running. By now, Graham was one of the first names on St Helens’ team sheet and 2008 showed just why.
Not only was he named in the 2008 Super League Dream Team, but he was also awarded the prestigious Man of Steel for the way in which he conducted himself that season. It was a year in which St Helens won the Challenge Cup for the third time in a row with the forward at the forefront of this victory, leading his pack with formidable runs and lion heart defence.
Over the course of nine seasons Graham racked up 225 appearances for St Helens, scoring 53 tries. Unfortunately though, he had the unwanted achievement of five consecutive Grand Final losses from 2007 until his final year in 2011.
This would become six when a move to NRL side Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs saw Graham leave Lancashire for New South Wales at the age of 27 and appear in the 2012 NRL Grand Final where his Canterbury side lost to Melbourne Storm. The former Saint again appeared in a Grand Final – this time in 2014 – but was once more licking his wounds as his Bulldogs side were beaten by the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
After scoring nine tries in 139 appearances over the course of six seasons, Graham left Canterbury for St George Illawarra Dragons. The flame-haired enforcer played 52 games, scoring one try before leaving in June this year to re-join his boyhood club, St Helens.
Despite being aged 36, Graham is still very much at the top of his game, excelling in the NRL where it has been notoriously difficult for British players to fit in as well as slotting back in seamlessly at the Totally Wicked Stadium.
In appreciation of the Englishman’s impact in the NRL, he was named in the NRL All Stars side in 2015 and 2016 to do battle against the Indigenous All Stars and even earned the Dally M Prop of the Year in 2014.
Since Graham debuted for Great Britain in 2006, he has been consistently chosen to represent his country. The prop played five times for the Lions in 2006 and 2007, scoring three tries, but has represented England a whopping 44 times – scoring four tries.
The number ten is one of the greatest role models to have ever played Rugby League. He runs his blood to water and never takes a backwards step on the field and is the epitome of a professional. Graham was named as co-captain in 2011 in his final year for the Saints and has also captained England – a sign that he commands the utmost respect from both his coaches and peers.