EVEN James Graham says some St Helens fans would rather have Luke Thompson than him!
But today sees the moment he has waited nine years for, wearing their red vee once again.
Having an England legend, who has been to the very top in the NRL, return is the stuff of dreams for the club where it all began.
After stints at Canterbury Bulldogs and St George-Illawarra Dragons, he has come home for one last hurrah, starting with the rearranged clash with Catalans behind closed doors at Leeds.
He has been there, seen it and done it – Grand Finals on both sides of the world, Challenge Cup finals, a World Club Challenge win and a World Cup final with his nation.
Now the prop gets to pull on a Saints shirt once again on a farewell tour – but he knows some would rather have the man who made the opposite journey to Canterbury.
The 34-year-old said: “Some people might be disappointed in me coming. Maybe they’d rather have Luke Thompson in the team – I probably would as well!
“I don’t know if I had a plan when I left – there’d only be St Helens or potentially Workington Town I’d only consider playing for if I came home.
“But I’m still having battles with myself. Both my children are Australian, as hard as it is for me to say that and I’ve been looking at employment opportunities post-rugby and some are starting to come to fruition.
“To all intents and purposes, this will be my last year as a professional rugby league player.”
Even if it is just a four-month farewell, front row partner, for club now as well as country, Alex Walmsley believes his impact will be felt for a long time to come.
He told SunSport: “He’s a fierce competitor but he’s so loved at St Helens, both at the club and around the town. When everyone found out he was coming back to us they were excited.
“James brings that level of competitiveness and that suits our team to a T. As disappointing as it was to lose Tommo, he’ll definitely help us over a tough few months.
“I know James pretty well and he definitely trains the way he plays. He trains hard and doesn’t go through the motions – he plays even harder.
“Everything he does, he does it to better himself and the team. He doesn’t get wound up in training sessions like he does in games, though.
“But I suppose he looks for any inch he can and if there’s something he can exploit, he will do. Our philosophy is to outwork the opposition and he’ll more than fit into that.
“He just wants to win and he’s going to make an impact on the likes of Matty Lees and Morgan Knowles, who are almost the next generation.
“They’re going to lead the pack over the next 10 or 12 years and they’re only going to benefit from playing alongside someone like James.
“In fact, I see a lot of James’ traits in Matty and he’ll really learn a lot.”
Graham is still living with his mum and dad, John and Dianne, in Liverpool after coming back from Australia.
His nature on the field and attitude of ‘it’s not about me, it’s not about the individual’ may not have changed but the St Helens club certainly has – as he puts it their Totally Wicked Stadium when he left, ‘was just a dream – it’s a reality now.’
And he feels he has linked up with the ideal coach in Kristian Woolf, who has proved how good he is with Tonga.
Graham added to Saints TV: “To beat one of the top teams. You could maybe look at it as a fluke or a one off but he’s beaten all three in New Zealand, Great Britain and Australia – that’s no accident.
“And just from speaking to him, I love his passion, enthusiasm and will to win.”
After nine years in Australia, you could be forgiven for thinking Graham has picked up one or two twangs from down under.
Walmsley, 30, added: “I think James lives in a condo now rather than a house.
“There’s been a bit of an ongoing joke with the likes of James and others who’ve been out in Australia for a while – like Sam Burgess, Josh Hodgson and Elliott Whitehead.
“They’ve started to pick up the Australian lingo a little bit and we’ve been all ribbing him over it but he’ll deny it as much as he can.
“There’s certainly been times when he and others slipped into it. As soon as they slip up, the other English lads are on to them.”
But any suggestion he is an ‘Aussie Pom’ is fiercely denied, with Graham saying about him becoming Australian: “I haven’t, I’m just easily led.”
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