When St Helens announced in April 2011 that James Graham was going to join the Bulldogs at the conclusion of the season, it sent a ripple through the rugby league community.
Of course, any player who had played 17 tests, 224 Super League games and won a Man of Steel award at just 25 would be a huge coup for any NRL club. But you would be hard pressed to find someone who even considered that Graham would have the impact he did.
When England ran out their 17 for the 2011 Four Nations final later that year, just two of the members of that team were playing in the NRL. One was Gareth Ellis, who was a year away from returning to the Super League. The other, Gareth Widdop, who had just broken out with a great year as Melbourne’s supposed five-eighth of the future.
Cut to the return of the Great British and Irish Lions in 2019 and seven of the 17 were currently plying away in the NRL, those being Graham, Widdop, Ryan Hall, Josh Hodgson, John Bateman, Elliot Whitehead and Thomas Burgess.
For the top English players to forgo their home nation to test out the NRL, there has to be a figurehead. And almost certainly those two figureheads were James Graham and Sam Burgess. These two great rivals began to inspire Englishmen to crack the best league in the world- and the Super League’s loss has been the NRL’s gain.
Imagine a Canberra side without Bateman, Hodgson and Whitehead leading the way. There’s no way Souths dominate the decade without the Burgess boys in their forward pack. Sam Moa, a key part of the Roosters squad which won 3 straight minor premierships, might not get a second chance if NRL teams don’t look at the English talent running around in the Super League.
Since Graham arrived in the NRL, 60 players have made the jump from the Super League to the NRL. Of those there are many different types. The successful Englishman (Josh Hodgson). The unsuccessful Englishman (Sam Tomkins). The irrelevant Englishman (Joe Burgess). The NRL return (Pat Richards). The under-the-radar NRL return (Blake Green). The NRL return which was hyped up but never really worked out (Dave Taylor). But the NRL, for the most part, has been improved by these imports.
Imagine if players had followed Adrian Morely to the NRL the way they followed Graham and Burgess. Imagine if the likes of James Roby, Kevin Sinfield, Keith Senior, Jamie Peacock, Paul Scunthorpe, Ben Westwood and Chris Hill all suited up in the NRL, rather than spending their entire careers in England.
Not to mention the sight of the massive 1.98 metre tall Eorl Crabtree in the NRL would have been enough to make even the most experienced prop shudder in his boots. And while we missed out on those talents, what we see now on a week by week basis is amazing.
But it wasn’t just off the field where Graham left his impact. On the field he was pretty good at that whole footy thing as well. After missing the finals in 2010 and 2011, the arrival of Graham not only helped the Bulldogs firm as a finals team- it made them one of the best teams in the comp, losing just 6 games all season en route to a Grand Final defeat against Melbourne.
The Bulldogs would make the finals every year from 2012-2016, and returned to the Grand Final in 2014, losing once again, this time against the Rabbitohs. This gives Graham a 0-8 record in Grand Finals in Australia and England- most likely the worst record in the history of rugby league.
After missing the finals in 2017, Graham switched to the Dragons, where he again provided consistency- taking a team that had missed the finals in 2016 and 2017 due to late season fade outs to the second week of September footy, where they took Anthony Siebold’s South Sydney side to the max.
With his career headed towards the twilight, Graham has established himself as one of the greatest props in England’s, and potentially rugby league history. He has played nine tests for Great Britain and a record 44 for England. As well as his Man of Steel award, he was voted the 2014 Dally M Prop of the Year and won the RLIF Prop of the Year award in 2008 and 2012. He has appeared in 414 professional games of rugby league- a phenomenal number for a hard nosed, suspension prone prop.
Hopefully, he can cap off that legacy with a premiership at St Helens. 1-8 is a lot better than 0-8.