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England’s James Graham ready to banish bad memories against Australia

The Guardian The Guardian 13/11/2016 Aaron Bower
James Graham’s return from a knee injury will lift England and alert Australia. © James Graham’s return from a knee injury will lift England and alert Australia.

“There aren’t too many happy memories, to be honest,” says James Graham when asked to recall games against Australia: he is not alone. As England’s most-capped player, the flame-haired prop has had his fair share of tussles with the Kangaroos down the years, but, on every occasion, he and the national side have come up short.

For more than 20 years it has been the same old story; whether it be heartbreaking, narrow defeats or comprehensive beatings, England and Graham have experienced almost the full range of emotions. Almost, because the euphoria of victory has continued to elude them.

Whether this is England’s best chance of beating the Kangaroos for the first time since the 1995 World Cup is debatable – the opening fortnight of the Four Nations suggests it is not – but when the stakes could not be much higher for the sport’s profile, Graham is acutely aware of what victory and progression to the Four Nations final would mean.

“You only have to look back at some recent results to see that there are some painful memories,” he says. “But hopefully I’ll be a part of a team that amends that. Those games have gone now, they have nothing to do with Sunday. I want to be part of a winning team – that’s what you work so hard from right from pre-season.

“Australia are a class team, but we’re a good team too. We’ll be doing our best to be on the right side of it. It’s a big weekend for English rugby league and hopefully we can do English rugby league proud.”

England and Australia, led by Cameron Smith, have not met each other in this country for five years (though they did play in the opening game of the 2013 World Cup in Cardiff). That all adds to the feeling that the stakes have rarely been higher for the national side against their arch enemy – even if Wayne Bennett’s team have limped their way to the game at the London Stadium.

England’s most-capped player has never tasted victory against the Aussies but he is confident Wayne Bennett’s side can upset the formbook. © Tony Marshall/Getty Images England’s most-capped player has never tasted victory against the Aussies but he is confident Wayne Bennett’s side can upset the formbook. Scotland’s incredible draw with New Zealand on Friday – the first time a fourth nation has registered a point in the tournament’s short history – has made England’s task easier. They now need to avoid defeat against the world champions to qualify for the final at Anfield next Sunday.

Defeat to New Zealand on the opening weekend was followed by an uninspiring win against Scotland in Coventry. If England have failed to capture the imagination the Canterbury man remains unconcerned. He says: “I thought we did a good enough job to get a win. We’d like to improve but we’ve got to be happy.

“Sport is a funny thing; we were more pleased with our performance against New Zealand when we lost than when we won as we didn’t play as well.

“On reflection it wasn’t too bad. But we’ve put it to bed now and all the focus is on Australia. You’ve got to learn from games in training, but there’s no point in dwelling on things too much. We moved on to this week quite quickly.”

Graham will return to the side having sat out the win in Coventry due to a knee problem and given how he has been among the NRL’s best for a number of years, his presence will undoubtedly lift England, as well as alert Australia. For Graham, the mere prospect of the latest chapter of the England-Australia rivalry is enough to stir the 31-year-old’s juices. “Any time you play for your country it’s very special, and when you add Australia into that there’s a lot of history,” he says.

“It is exciting because it’s a long time since England have beaten them which brings some added pressure: but that’s good. This group is really excited about the prospect of what lies ahead.

“They’re a class team, aren’t they? Their performances this year have reflected that – from the game in Perth [against New Zealand] to the one last week. They’ve shown a tremendous amount of skill and courage to get those victories, but we go into it confident that we can get a result. I’m feeling good. I can’t wait. I’m ready.”

With a World Cup 12 months away, qualification for the final could perhaps be the spark for something special to happen for English rugby league. If it is the men in white celebrating evening, you suspect there will be nobody roaring louder than Graham, one of the proudest Englishmen of them all.

England v Australia, London Stadium, 3am NZDT Sunday 13 November

England Lomax; McGillvary, Watkins, Percival, Hall; Widdop, Brown; Graham, Hodgson, Hill, Whitehead, Bateman, S Burgess Interchange G Burgess, T Burgess, Cooper, Clark

Australia Boyd; Holmes, Dugan, Inglis, Ferguson; Thurston, Cronk; Scott, Smith, Woods, Gillett, Cordner, Merrin Interchange Klemmer, Morgan, Frizell, Thaiday

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