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Aussie move is right for Graham

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George Riley George Riley | 16:10 UK time, Friday, 29 April 2011

I applaud James Graham for taking the plunge and leaving his hometown club St Helens to test himself in rugby league's top club competition in Australia.

The England prop, who captained the side in last year's Four Nations, moves with a burgeoning reputation as a front-line enforcer with terrific hands, and I can't wait to see how he fares against the best the NRL has to offer.

Don't get me wrong, I have a huge amount of respect for one-club men who repay their team by staying loyal throughout their career - I wrote a blog praising Kevin Sinfield's loyalty to Leeds only a couple of months ago.

As a fan of Super League - in my view the most exhilarating sporting product that a British sport fan has on their doorstep - I of course want to see the very best players lighting up our game.

But I also believe the much-debated gap in international class between England and the southern hemisphere superpowers can only narrow if more of our top players opted for a spell down under.

James Graham, St Helens

Graham has represented St Helens at the largest grounds and on the biggest occassions. Photo: PA

Former Bradford Bull Sam Burgess and ex Leeds Rhino Gareth Ellis have excelled since arriving in Australia.

Before them, Adrian Morley was outstanding for Sydney Roosters and I always wondered whether Morley's move forced a penny to drop with some Aussie observes that some of the English boys could actually play some pretty good rugby! They have been scouting our Super League players a lot more since.

I expect Graham to be a massive antipodean hit too, and this can only benefit the international team. The more NRL-battle-hardened players we have in the national team, the better chance we have of toppling Australia and New Zealand on the world stage.

Canterbury Bulldogs chief executive Todd Greenberg first sounded out Graham about a possible move at the end of last year. He says he was impressed by Graham's "steely resolve" to experience the NRL arm wrestle.

I must admit I find it pretty exciting when a top man from a big Aussie club talks about an English rugby league player in such glowing terms. And Greenberg was positively purring about the flame-haired Saints star when he spoke to us this week.

What may surprise some fans is how Greenberg has gone out of his way to praise the intelligence of Graham as a man, and the thought, as well as the desire, that he has put into the whole Australian project.

Moving to the other side of the world is a big deal for anyone, and Graham is only 25.
"Sometimes you meet a player who is a little bit different," says the Bulldogs CEO. "He wants to understand the culture of our club and it was obvious to me that being a one-club player with St Helens was big for him.

"It is fantastic for British rugby league that clubs in the NRL are looking for English talent," says Greenberg, citing Morley, Ellis and Burgess as examples. "James will be equal to that and maybe even better."

From my own dealing with Graham, I would second Greenberg's assessment of his maturity. I've found "Jammer" to be a model pro, and in many respects he is an example to another departing St Helens star, Kyle Eastmond, of how a player should conduct himself.

Chairman Eamonn McManus may even have been casting a glance at Eastmond when he said of Graham: "He has handled the situation professionally and with absolute respect for the Saints, recognising what we have done for him as well as what he has done for us."

The feeling I get from speaking to Saints fans is that very few begrudge Graham the move.

Some would have wanted the decision to be made public a little sooner, but on the whole most admire the man and wish him well. I thought the headline confirming the news on the official St Helens website - 'Saints Bless Graham' - was excellent.

What I would like to see, in calling for more top British players to fulfil their NRL ambitions, is for a back to show their class in Australia.

Traditionally, it is just our big forwards who make the move, with any backs contemplating a new challenge seeming to lean towards a code switch to union instead. And that is absolutely not a trend I'd want to see more of.

The bottom line is that if we can pick up more of that Aussie fire and swagger and spread it through our national teams then I'm all for our top players chancing their arm at the other side of the world.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Totally agree George though I think most rugby league fans would say it's not normally the forwards where we struggle internationally though we've never had a Nathan Hindmarsh "machine" 40 tackles+40hit ups a game. It's in the backline where we normally come up short both defensively and creating chances and there have been no backs going down under yet. Gareth Widdops promotion in the Melbourne team may well be as significant if he continues his promising rise because he is showing glimpses of being the type of playmaker we need to compete with the phenomenal B enji Marshall and Jonathan Thurston though admittedly he is still a long way behind those two. Until we get our centres playing in the NRL and having to face the likes of Gregg Inglis, Matt Cooper, Kenny Dowd, Tamal Ingris etc week in week out, I think we are always vunerable to being overpowered by them in the one off international matches.

    As for Graham I think he will do as well as Burgess and Ellis have as he is certainly a consistent performer, and some of the stuff the bulldogs are playing at the moment could well see him be as successful as Morley was if they keep the team together.

  • Comment number 2.

    Yeah I'm with you George - big loss to Super League but great for English RL that he wants to test himself against the best. And looking at his post-game rallying cry to his teammates after the fabulous recent Wigan-Saints game it's obvious that he'll be going hell-for-leather until October.

    Not sure what anyone else thinks but I can't help but look at the likes of Graham's teammate Jamie Foster and think that some of the big kit manufacturers like Nike, Adidas etc. are missing a trick here. The lad's a points machine, has a bit of swagger and Beckham-esque good looks - he should be draped over massive billboards. Miles more exciting than any current footballer. This is the kind of exposure and "pizzazz" that we lack and probably fuels moves likes Graham's - he'll be a big ticket in the Oz sporting world I'm sure. English RL could really use a big kit manufacturer deal to push it into the limelight a bit more and help us turn SL into a serious rival to NRL, anyone agree?


  • Comment number 3.

    Completely agree with both the above comments.

    In relation to getting some backs playing in the NRL I hate to say but I think the fact is at the moment there currently arent any in the Super League who could hack it down under. Every time we play the aussies and kiwis we get exposed in the backs. I think a possible solution to this is getting more young players out to oz to try their hand in the toyota cup competition to further there development. This is something that a couple of clubs are starting to do for example Widnes have a lad currently playing for the Brisbane Broncos academy team.

    In relation to bringing the game into the limelight more I think there needs to be a shift by the RFL to promoting the game not simply on the basis of the sport itself but rather its star players. One area that I think needs improving on in this way is the sports coverage on sky. In todays televised game Rangi Chase but some booming hits in and provided plenty of entertainment with moments of individual brilliance. Had this been an NRL game on aussie TV these moments would have been replayed countless times with the commentators enthusiastically singing the praise of the player. This doesnt happen on sky, when someone puts a big hit in theres maybe one replay of it if we're lucky. Big hits and individual flair are key parts of the game and more needs to be done to show this, and the players producing them, to the sport watching public to boost our games profile.

  • Comment number 4.

    Just a quick mention about Gareth Widdop who is English and playing very well at five eighths for the Storm. Maybe the answer, as Fredelpero said, is to get the young backs from the UK in the Toyota competition?? Gareth has been playing his football here in Australia since he was 16.

  • Comment number 5.

    What I would like to see, in calling for more top British players to fulfil their NRL ambitions, is for a back to show their class in Australia.

    Widdop - fullback, centre or five eighth is smashing it in Australia for Melbourne...do you not watch NRL?

  • Comment number 6.

    #5 don't be facetious. I'm sure you'll have noticed this is a blog about SL players chancing their arm in the NRL. Gaz emigrated with his family as a teen and worked through the Aussie ranks as you are no doubt aware. Really nice lad

  • Comment number 7.

    Don't be facetious? You said you want to see a British back to show their class in the NRL, maybe you ought to edit your blog to read "an established Super League back" instead of getting defensive over the inaccuracies of the piece.

  • Comment number 8.

    Widdop has been coached in Australia. That is the key along with the fact he plays outside of two of the best players in the comp: Smith & Cronk.

    English style of play & coaching is the downfall. Too static. Not enough depth & bodies in motion. No confidence to go back to go forwards.

    Ellis has been excellent for the Tigers. Burgess has been overated in my opinion: too many dumb off loads & too long out injured. He is popular with the media, always on the footy show etc, but there are plenty of forwards in the comp going better than him, just without the profile. He will improve...

    The overall standard of the NRL will show how good a player really is. Graham has a chance with a good Bulldogs side...

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    Re. Widdop. He is coming along fine and he seems to be playing more like a centre rather than 5 8th. I know the TV folk lay it on a bit thick but prior to last night's post match interview, Brett Kimorely's introduction was "one player who has been outstanding for Melbourne so far this season". He is certainly noticeable.

    Negative thoughts: since arriving in Oz, have Morley, Burgess and Ellis played any better for England? I don't think so!

  • Comment number 11.

    Burgess has been injured too long in Aus? I know he's had a bad run this year with his shoulder then his ankle but didn't he only miss one game for the Bunnies last year and that was through suspension?

    I saw a bit of him last year and even when Souths were awful he was still putting in good performances, Vs the Dragons on the last game of their season and Vs Penrith in particular so I don't think he was over-rated at all especially given it was his first year.

    Out of interest anyone from Aus here - how likely is George Burgess to get a chance in first grade now Asotasi is out for 4 months?

  • Comment number 12.

    Good on James Graham for giving it a go, reckon it will make him a better player and it gives another young lad an opportunity at Saints to step up a grade. Lets not forget, historically it was commonplace for many British players to play in the NRL before the switch to Summer Rugby - The likes of Mal Reilly, Ellery Hanley and Kevin Ward had very succesful careers 'down under'

  • Comment number 13.

    @9 Welcome aboard fella! Great to hear that, because as someone myself who grew up following football over RL and has crossed over due to a combination of greater competition (through licensing) and the poor discipline and constant griping surrounding football, it strikes me that RL should be making more of this. How much would a fairly modest bus billboard campaign cost SL? Or sign up with some big pub chains and pay them a small amount to stick posters of Sam Tomkins, Foster, Tom Briscoe, Rangi Chase et al around the place? I think football is fertile territory for picking off disillusioned fans just now and the RL need to do more to capitalise on this. Someone like Brian Noble should be appointed to take this on. Good media savvy and connections, knows the value of marketing the product etc. Get on this please RL.

  • Comment number 14.

    Just realised you may not be a fella sheffieldhammer! Apologies if not. Force of habit.

  • Comment number 15.

    As a Saints fan, and like all other fans, the loss of James Graham to the NRL will be a huge loss to our game here. For Saints and the game as a whole he has been an excellent leader and will be hard to replace. Good luck to Jammer and hope he acheives everything he desires in the next chaper of his career.

  • Comment number 16.

    Totally agree that more English players plying their trade in the NRL would be a great boost for our international side but, frankly, as many of the other posters have mentioned, there just isn't enough quality in SL for the NRL clubs to sit up and take notice.

    As well as Ellis and Burgess, Mark Flanagan, Michael Worrincey and a Burgess twin are also over in Australia. Flanagan had quite a bit of game time last season but rather unluckily in my view, unless I'm mistaken, nothing this time around. Worrincey is just making up the numbers at the Panthers and Burgess Jnr has only been signed to keep Big Sam from feeling homesick. There isn't all that much of a regular reminder to NRL CEOs and coaches to keep a regular eye on SL for new talent.

    In defence of our backs though, there is more opportunity for a forward to make the switch down under as clubs usually pack their bench with 4 forwards and forwards are more regularly injured than backs resulting in more cover being needed. It is rare for clubs to have two world class full-backs, stand offs, scrum halves or even hookers whereas look at how many international/state of origin second row/locks are on the books of the Bulldogs, for example. (Pritchard, Ryan, Eastwood, Stagg and Halatau. You could also throw in Mickey Paea). Maybe I'm stretching my point a little (Stagg has played only one Origin in 2006) but if I were in control of an NRL side's chequebook, I wouldn't be signing any English backs on the strength of their international showings to date or even their week in week out performances in SL which is a considerably weaker competition than the NRL.

    I think it was Phil Gould who made the point in the tri-nations last year that the NRL and RFL should get the best 20 or 30 English kids over to the Toyota Cup every year for their development. Great idea but can't ever see it happening. Too many self-interested SL clubs in the picture.

    Thinking about that George, is the structure of our game really the best for the good of the international team?

  • Comment number 17.

    I can't say that I noticed much difference in the standard or style of play of either Ellis or Burgess when they have played for England. And I don't see how playing in the NRL will improve James Graham, other than in the sense that all sportspeople seek to continually improve their performance throughout their sporting careers. James Graham has twice now been the only English representative in the world 13; he has won everything there is to win in England, and he has had a lifelong ambition to play in Australia. While I would have much preferred him to stay, I wish him well in his new career next season.

    I don't understand the school of thought that says we should watch all our outstanding players leave our own game to benefit that of the game down under - when they have plenty talent of their own. We should be doing all we can to retain our own talent, not encourage it to leave. I would not like to see our backs or any more of our talented forwards disappear down under. We need them here, to build the quality of our own game, not there, to drain it away.

  • Comment number 18.

    Di,
    I agree that the ideal would be for British players to remain in Super League to retain the strength of SL rather than it drain away to the NRL. However, this ideal is simply not realistic. Unquestionably the NRL is the better of the two leagues and British players have to play in that league in for the good of their development and progress to the next level.

    Whilst it is probably true that neither Ellis or Burgess have shone on the international scene since they have moved Down Under, that the Kiwis are both the current world champions and four nations champions, and arguably boast the best player in the game in their ranks, cannot be a coincidence. It is only since the introduction of the Warriors to the NRL that they have made their move to regularly challenge the Australians and they are now seeing the benefit on the international stage. It could be said that this has been a long time coming, however, when you consider the havoc caused by the Super League in Australia, it is probably the main factor which has allowed New Zealand's talent to flourish.

  • Comment number 19.

    Greg,
    I don't agree with your statement that 'unquestionably' the NRL is the better of the two leagues. They are different styles with different emphases but while in the NRL more teams may have a greater number of intense matches, the level of intensity between the two leagues at their respective top ends is no different. Our (Saints) match against Wigan on Good Friday was an excellent example of this. That was as intense and as skilfull a game as I have seen when watching the NRL on TV. But the style was different.

    I would agree that the Kiwis have benefited from players playing in the NRL but not because the NRL is the better competition; rather because they have adapted to the style and rules of the NRL. They can play you at your own game, as it were. We play a different style of RL in England. We are mistaken to try and immitate what the NRL does. We should be seeking to reach ever higher standards in our own style of rugby league than try to play to a format that does not suit us.

 

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