Canterbury’s James Graham and South Sydney’s Sam Burgess share a ferocious on-field rivalry, but off the field, simply making eye contact is enough to send these two great mates into stitches.
The two big Brits shared some massive collisions in what looked like a show of outright hostility when the Rabbitohs and Bulldogs met earlier this year. It seemingly added fuel to rumours the pair had had a falling out in camp with England at last year’s World Cup and were barely on speaking terms, but Graham has put paid to those rumours several times since.
When he spoke to media ahead of what will be his eighth top-grade premiership decider – he won one and lost five grand finals for St Helens in the Super League before joining the Bulldogs ahead of their 2012 loss – Graham couldn’t help but smile when Burgess’s name came up.
Asked what the pair were grinning about when they met on-stage at the Dally M Awards on Monday night, when Graham was anointed prop of the year and Burgess lock of the year, Graham said it comes down to jokes shared over many years of rooming together while playing for England.
"We just had a bit of a smile and a bit of a laugh to each other. We’re good friends, we’ve shared some fun times together for England," Graham said.
"We’ve roomed together for so long so every time we see each other we instantly start to make... there’s a few things that make us laugh and put a smile on your face so you just think back to that."
So what could be so profound that the pair telepathically start grinning at the mere sight of each other? Well, it turns out profound probably isn’t the word... it’s a sketch comedy back in the UK they both find entertaining that does the trick.
"You know what, as stupid as it sounds, there’s this TV show back home named ‘Bo Selecta’ so we just do lines from that and it instantly sets us both off, it really does. Go on YouTube, Bo Selecta, ‘Britney Spears’ Day Off’, and it’s that. Instantly – I know he’s thinking of it and he knows I’m thinking of it as well," Graham laughs.
Burgess departs the NRL for English rugby at the end of this season after four years of huge performances for the Rabbitohs, while Graham will hang around for a fourth-straight season with the Bulldogs. Both are guaranteed to be remembered among the absolute top echelon of British imports, deservedly mentioned in the same breath as players of the calibre of Malcolm Reilly, Cliff Watson, Tommy Bishop and Ellery Hanley.
The best of Britain have even made their mark in some big grand final moments. Watson and Bishop helped Cronulla to their first ever grand final, in the brutal 1973 decider up against Reilly’s victorious Sea Eagles. Reilly was smashed out of that contest, much like Hanley was when decked by Terry Lamb in the 1988 grand final.
We surely haven’t seen English players of this calibre oppose each other in a premiership decider since 1973, but Graham says that sort of history won’t be front of mind for him this week.
"It’s something I don’t really think of but I guess you’re right [that English players have a strong legacy in the NRL]. Even the fact we’re playing in a grand final, that’s big enough in itself but to be carrying on the baton for the old Pommy lads that have been over here, it’s a bit of a strange feeling."
Asked if he’ll be able to be happy for his mate Sam if the Rabbitohs are victorious on Sunday, Graham seems torn, not wanting to answer yes or no.
"Ah... obviously if we win I’ll be over the moon, I will. And I’m not even contemplating defeat," he says finally.
It’s a little window into the mindset of this hyper-competitive Merseysider, who regularly chases outside backs for 100 metres if there’s even the most remote chance of saving his side a try – like when he denied Storm centre Mahe Fonua in the recent elimination final.
"I really don’t know," Graham says of his aggressive style that has him as likely to dish it out to teammates after an error as he is opponents."I really try and calm myself down before we get out there and just sort of relax and sit down and have a bit of a chill. I’m just trying to do the best for my team and my teammates. That’s my mindset, is thinking about what the gaffer’s said and try and implement the game plan and what he’s given us to do." – nrl.com