James Graham insists no turning back as he calls time on international stage for England and Great Britain

IT SEEMS strange to think England prop James Graham – all snarling aggression and relentless power – will not rip into international opposition packs anymore.

THE SWEETEST MOMENT: England's James Graham celebrates an emotional series-clinching win against New Zealand at Anfield in 2018. Picture by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com
THE SWEETEST MOMENT: England's James Graham celebrates an emotional series-clinching win against New Zealand at Anfield in 2018. Picture by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

The sight of him marauding forward, taking the fight to rivals in Test match rugby league, whether for England or Great Britain, has been a familiar, enduring image ever since he debuted in 2006.

The record-breaking St Helens forward, who turned 35 earlier this month, announced his international retirement yesterday finishing as England’s most capped player on 44.

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When you take his nine Lions appearances into consideration, he steps down just one behind his old front-row partner Adrian Morley’s overall record of 54.

Nevertheless, as much as Graham could no doubt still do a job at the 2021 Rugby League World Cup, he maintains there is no go going back.

“Adrian Morley always says that he’s never retired from England, he’s always available,” he said.

“But I don’t think I’m quite as mad as Moz. I’ve made my decision.

“When I assessed all the details of the situation, I’d be 36 after another season potentially playing, so I thought now is the right time to call it.

PAINFUL DEFEAT: A frustrated James Graham, pictured after Great Britain's loss to New Zealand last winter. Picture: John Davidson/SWpix.com

“It stops me and saves me from myself really; it makes it real announcing it and I’m not playing games with myself this way.

“Sometimes I wake up thinking maybe I could (play at RLWC2021) but I think I need to protect myself from doing that!”

Graham had been part of the plans for the new England coach Shaun Wane for this year’s home Ashes series against Australia, giving him one last chance to finally get a victory over the Kangaroos after coming so close so often. However, that was cancelled as part of the knock-on effect of Covid-19 and he has informed Wane he does not want to be considered for 2021.

Graham captained England in eight Tests – the first time against New Zealand in Wellington in 2010 – and Great Britain on four occasions.

SNARLING AGGRESSION: England's James Graham is tackled by New Zealand's Issac Liu and Jesse Bromwich at Anfield in November 2018. Picture by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

He played in the 2017 World Cup final – England’s first in 22 years – when they were narrowly defeated by Australia and that was his third global tournament.

His last involvement was on last autumn’s Lions tour of the southern hemisphere having last played for them in the 2007 series win over New Zealand.

However, it was England’s series victory over the Kiwis two years ago, when current Saints team-mate Tommy Makinson scored a hat-trick in the 20-14 second Test at Anfield, that sits as the Liverpudlian’s favourite international memory.

Graham, who established himself as one of the world’s greats while playing in the NRL from 2012 until returning to Saints in July, recalled: “Without doubt, it was that game.

DENIED: England head coach Shaun Wane. Picture: Anthony Devlin/PA

“It was unfortunate circumstances that Sean O’Loughlin wasn’t playing and I got made captain for that one at Anfield.

“It was a series-clinching win and, no matter what the circumstances, it was a euphoric feeling of winning a trophy. But on a personal level, to do it in my home city Liverpool, at Anfield, in front of friends and family I’d not played in front of for a long, long time, it meant a lot to me.

“I broke down at the end of that game. I was just overcome with emotion. And after it, to see my nieces and nephew, brothers, sisters ... I caught up with a few mates in a pub after the game – I ducked off before our team meal just to see them – it’s hard to put into words what that meant on a personal level. And to do it with that group of lads; we became so close in the World Cup and we came so close as well.

“We needed to cement that with a series win or trophy and we managed to do that.

“And the actual game itself was just a brilliant advert for the sport. A lot gets made of State of Origin and how that intensity can never be matched.

“But if you want to test that theory go back and watch that (Anfield) game: it was phenomenal.

“We were playing a New Zealand side fresh from beating Australia in their own backyard. I think that gets forgotten about; they came over as hot favourites.

“The close win against Tonga in the (2017) semi-final over in New Zealand as well, those are the games as a sport we need to celebrate just how good they are.”

For now, the former Canterbury Bulldogs star will concentrate on his club career, starting with Saints’ game against fierce rivals Wigan Warriors tonight.

With Sam Burgess’s injury-enforced retirement last year and O’Loughlin unlikely to be around in the 2021 World Cup, this represents a changing of the guard in the England pack.

That said, Graham believes England have a “bright future” given the talent of forwards coming through in Super League, not least Saints team-mates Morgan Knowles, James Bentley and Matty Lees.

He says he will look forward to being a fan at the World Cup next year and cheering on from the sidelines.

Wane said: “Whilst I totally understand James’s reason for retiring from international rugby, I am personally disappointed I will never get the chance to coach him. His record says everything about him – a true English great.

“I have watched every Test match he’s played in, and always admired his competitive spirit and win at all costs attitude. I wish him well.”

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Thank you, James Mitchinson. Editor.