James Graham is one of those iconic sporting figures who opponents feared, team-mates adored, fans loved and hated, but ultimately commanded universal respect.
When he speaks, after adjusting to the thick scouse accent, you listen.
His story of putting a litany of career demons to bed in the final seconds of his final match, underlines not only the power of sport but the importance of a positive mindset.
His is a tale of perseverance and triumph through adversity, while never ever taking yourself too seriously.
“Rugby league has been the axis upon which my world has spun since the age of eight,” he says.
“When you are going through a tough time then sport can help you through that. It gives you a sense of community, opportunity, a chance to grow as a group and as an individual. I’m very grateful for our sport.”
I’m speaking to Graham this week on a call from his home in Sydney as we record a podcast for Love Rugby League - and the passion with which he speaks shows he still does.
We share an hour of career highlights, highs, lows and David Brent - recalling the memorable moment in 2017 when he duped an Australian TV station into thinking he was embarking on a singing career which was instead a scene from The Office.
“Channel 9, the main terrestrial rugby league station over here ran it on their news saying about James Graham’s singing career!” he recalls. “You can’t give me that!”
It is a conversation littered with gems from his own remarkable career, bursting with achievements, setbacks and life lessons.
Graham found rugby league growing up in Merseyside in the 80s and 90s and embarked on a lasting love affair with St Helens after walking out at their famous old Knowsley Road ground for the first time in 2003.
He enjoyed rich early success as part of their 2006 side that won every trophy, and added the coveted individual Man of Steel award in 2008, a year that also saw Graham named the best prop in the world.
But the bitter taste of Grand Final defeat would follow him, reaching five Grand Finals in a row with Saints between 2007 and 2011 and losing the lot, before moving to Canterbury Bulldogs for 2012 and losing the NRL Grand Final in his first season there.
Two years later came another Grand Final, against Sam Burgess and the South Sydney Rabbitohs, which brought another loss, a seventh defeat, and a crushing one.
Throw in that agonising 2017 World Cup Final defeat with England against Australia and you could forgive Graham for thinking the game had turned on him. Especially given the previous World Cup had seen England fall in the final seconds of the semi-final and Graham’s own tournament start by being sensationally dropped from the team.
So the long-awaited and unlikely redemption story in the final months of his career in 2020 was wonderful.
A surprise move back to Saints from Australia to complete a season ravaged by the pandemic, yielded one final shot at the big prize, to bring a glittering career full circle, with one last chance at a Grand Final with his old club.
“We weren’t even sure that season would continue when I signed,” he recalls. “So it might never have happened how it did.”
Bitter rivals Wigan were the opponents, behind-closed doors at Hull, and the Warriors appeared set to hand Graham yet another Grand Final defeat.
With a tight match locked at 4-4 with two minutes to go Wigan had a penalty to win it from halfway. Zak Hardaker’s kick drifted wide. With seconds to go Saints winger Tommy Makinson tried a drop goal. His effort struck the post, and as time froze, teenage star Jack Welsby reacted quickest on the hooter to score the dramatic match-winner, handing Graham a Grand Final ring with the final play of his career.
“The end was incredible,” he says, standing up from the call and walking round the room on his phone as he recalls those goosebump-giving final seconds. Graham was off the field by this point, so watched powerless from the touchline as the video referee hovered over the button that would end and define his career.
“To get to that last game, and Tommy Makinson decides he’s going to miss the drop goal. Is that not the best try assist you have ever seen in your life?”
“It’s probably a good job I live in Sydney now because if I lived anywhere in close proximity of Jack Welsby I’d be at his door every day shaking his hand, saying thank you, jumping on him and buying him beers.
“That game put a lot of things to bed for me and put me at peace with a few things that had happened throughout my career.”
One regret is experiencing an epic career farewell during a strange and unique time where sport was played out in empty stadiums. An experience that reinforced to Graham just what makes sport so special, why British sport in particular is so fierce, and why we fall in love with it, whatever our sporting religion.
“The only thing that was missing was the fans and I would have loved to have shared those moments with them as I know what the fans bring to the game. I miss going out and performing for people and I even miss the hate.
“The fans don’t hate you as much over here in Australia, it’s more of an appreciation. Which is great. But when I played Leeds, Warrington, Wigan I knew I was in for some abuse and in a sick sort of way I liked it. I love what the fans bring and how passionate they are”.
Graham has only fond memories, no regrets and lives life with a smile on his face. Now working with former club St George Illawarra Dragons alongside roles in the Australian media, he will return to the UK later this year for an as-yet undetermined position at a World Cup he believes England has a great chance of winning. “This team has a great opportunity to be the first England team to lift this World Cup in a long, long time”.
His love for life and league runs parallel, and believes one brings lessons for the other.
“Rugby league is just a made up game with made up rules,” he adds.
“But for anyone who saw my face after that Grand Final it is crazy the sense of meaning and purpose that it gave me and gives others as well.”
*18+ | BeGambleAware