On this day 14 years ago, 5th December 2003, James Graham was the biggest current name in the England Academy side that faced the Australian Institute of Sport at South Leeds Stadium, helping them to a 28-22 win, as Chris Park reported for League Express.
And Graham was the star performer for England, earning nomination as the Academy Player of the Match, although he wasn’t the only player who has since made a name for himself on both sides. Current Widnes Vikings star Chris Houston was a member of the AIS side, for example.
Here we reproduce the report that featured in that week’s newspaper.
It took England only 72 seconds to get the AIS onto the back foot, with a converted try, which was the prelude to a dominant opening 40 minutes by the Academy.
But it set the scene for a massive fightback by the Australians, whose size, power and ability to run intelligent lines was always a threat in what proved to be a fascinating game.
In the end, England responded to a man-of-the-match performance from front rower James Graham and hooker John Gallagher, who, together with Craig Huby, formed a solid unit which absorbed everything the Aussies could throw at them.
Calm, clear conditions greeted the teams as they walked out at the South Leeds Stadium, and it took less than two minutes for England to shock the visitors, when fullback Ian Hardman retrieved a clearing kick and Graham broke through to send Scott Murrell through for a try converted by Huby. Then, in the eighth minute, the AIS failed to number up, and Murrell put centre Karl Pryce over in the corner for his side’s second touchdown.
Three minutes later, the AIS fullback found himself swamped as he retrieved a kick from by his corner flag, was forced over the touchline by a posse of eager chasers, and from the resulting scrum Harrison Hansen used his long reach to score the Academy’s third try, for Huby to add the goal.
Despite this the AIS looked very dangerous when they had the ball, running clever lines with enough pace and power to keep the home team honest. However, they lost centre Brett Anderson to the sin- bin for interference following a storming break from Graham that all but resulted in a try to captain James Coyle.
At this point England gave Graham and Huby a well deserved rest, but it seemed to disrupt their go-forward, although Danny Speakman extended the home lead with a try on the half-hour after Hansen had retrieved a loose ball to feed Pryce, and the big Bradford centre sent in his winger with a neat inside ball.
The AIS scored tries either side of the break through Aubusson and Perkins, one converted by Berry, the other by Aubusson, the latter whilst England were still disorganised following the sin-binning of Cook for interference a minute into the second half. This put a very different shade on the game, and when Perkins scored again from a neat chip by Aubusson, who goaled from touch, the margin was down to two points and the AIS were looking a very different proposition.
The reintroduction of props Graham and Huby stiffened the resolve of the England side in the face of a determined AIS team, and Huby restored a little of his side’s breathing space with a neatly slotted penalty just short of the hour mark following an offside decision against an over-eager AIS defence.
However, the visitors’ enthusiasm was not to be wasted, as hooker Nathan Berry buried his way under a despairing tackle and over the England whitewash to level the scores at 22 apiece. But, unluckily for the visitors, the attempted conversion attempt from outstanding scrum-half Aubusson struck the left hand upright and rebounded out.
At this point, the home team’s backs were well and truly grinding into the wall, with the physical and pacy AIS pack giving their electric backs an ideal platform from which to run the game at their own pace and wherever they chose. But the England team showed their resilience and determination when, from a scrum ten metres out from their own line, first-half substitute Simon Grix shimmied through the centre of the AIS’s defence and sprinted half the length of the pitch before releasing fullback Hardman with a well flighted, one-handed ball. It was converted by Huby with just six minutes to go.
It was a dramatic end to a game of wildly fluctuating fortunes, and the return game on Wednesday at Featherstone’s Lionheart Stadium should be a terrific encounter.
It’s a sign of the progress being made at Academy level over the past couple of years that an English side, playing against an Australian side from an institution whose sole raison d’etre is to achieve athletic world dominance, could run away with half a game and then have something in hand to come to the rescue when things got sticky.
That’s why England Academy Under-17 coach Stuart Wilkinson pronounced himself a satisfied coach after the game.
“It’s all part of the learning process for young players,” said Wilkinson.
“They get a bit giddy with the excitement of it all, and now they know, because they have experienced it, that when you are playing Australians, with all the method and all the qualities which they have, things can change very quickly.
“We had to win that game three times in reality, in the face of a great deal of pressure. We played the third quarter with virtually no possession – in fact, we’ve just won an International with a 54 percent completion rate, which says a great deal about our desire and our commitment.
“Then, having hung in and hung in, we had a player in young Simon Grix who was capable of producing a piece of skill and great athleticism to make a try for Ian Hardman, which won us the game.
“James Graham had a big game for us tonight. He looks after things in the forwards and he’s a great driving force. Along with John Gallagher and Craig Huby, he made up a very strong front row for us. We knew that we would have to spell the front rowers for a while because of the workload they would have to get through, but when Graham and Huby returned to the field, they really turned things back around.
And, according to Wilkinson, things could get better as England look ahead to the second International, at Featherstone’s Lionheart Stadium on Wednesday evening.
“We have around 40-50 percent improvement in this side. There were things we talked about, which we practised, that we didn’t do tonight. There were things which we learned, like how opposition like this just doesn’t panic when things go against them, but sticks to their methods and their game plans and works things out. We’ve learned a lot tonight – but we’ve learned it as winners.”
Centre Karl Pryce, who went off with an injured leg just before the interval, could be a doubt for Wednesday’s game. Apart from that, there were just the usual bumps and bruises from the England dressing room.
Castleford’s Andy Kain, who missed the match with a shoulder injury, and Wigan forward David Allen (hamstring) could be in the reckoning for the return.
GAMEBREAKER: The Academy scored the final try with minutes remaining, thanks to a great break by Simon Grix.
GAME STAR: St Helens star James Graham was a tremendous presence in the front row.
1 Ian Hardman (St Helens)
2 Lee Smith (Leeds Rhinos)
3 Matthew Cook (Bradford Bulls)
4 Karl Pryce (Bradford Bulls)
5 Danny Speakman (Wigan Warriors)
6 Scott Murrell (Leeds Rhinos)
7 James Coyle (Wigan Warriors) (C)
8 Craig Huby (Castleford Tigers)
9 John Gallagher (Leeds Rhinos)
10 James Graham (St Helens)
11 Harrison Hansen (Wigan Warriors)
12 Jason Golden (Leeds Rhinos)
13 Carl Ablett (Leeds Rhinos)
14 Simon Grix (Halifax)
15 Brett Ferres (Bradford Bulls)
16 Adam Bibey (Leigh Centurions)
17 Andy Bracek (St Helens)
Tries: Murrell (2); Pryce (8); Hansen (11); Speakman (30); Hardman (71)
Goals: Huby 4
Sin-bin: Cook (41) – Interference
1 Greg Eastwood
2 Thomas Potae
3 Ryan Shortland
4 Brett Anderson
5 Anthony Perkins
6 Colin Wilkie
7 James Aubusson (C)
8 Ben Lowe
9 Nathan Berry
10 Chris Houston
11 Joel Reddy
12 Rodney Griffin
13 Shane Eastwood
14 Daniel Backo
15 Danny Williams
16 Scott Anderson
18 Brendan Ovens
Tries: Aubusson (38), Perkins (42, 47); Berry (68)
Goals: Aubusson(2), Berry
Sin-bin: Brett Anderson (15) – Interference
Referee: Craig Halloran
Rugby Leaguer & League Express Players of the Match:
England Academy: James Graham
AIS: James Aubusson