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Next block crucial for everyone at Saints, says Graham

The period during the Six Nations was one part of his first season with Northampton Saints that back rower Sam Graham always knew was going to be crucial in terms of opportunity.

The 25-year-old had to work hard for a shot at competing in the Gallagher Premiership, with a spell in New Zealand with Massey RFC going a long way towards convincing him to stick with rugby after being released from Bath’s academy.

He had previously worked as a chef in his native Wiltshire, but he made his way back into English rugby with Bristol, where he unfortunately was not quite able to make the grade.

However, a move to Doncaster Knights in 2020 proved to be the making of Graham, as he soon became captain of the Castle Park outfit and established himself as one of the Championship’s outstanding players.

After sweeping Doncaster’s Player of the Year awards for 2021/22, he joined Saints ahead of the current campaign, although he knew he would have to be patient when it came to game time.

Graham has, however, become more and more involved in the Premiership as the campaign has gone on and that is set to continue in the coming weeks, with several of his fellow forwards away on international duty.

Graham said: “I knew this was going to be a big block for me on a personal level and for the team – it’s a really crucial part of the season.

“These are the games you want to be a part of. It’s a very attritional league, especially at this time, and hopefully we’re going to be getting some nicer weather now, which will hopefully play into our hands.”

Sam Graham

“But this is a massive block and it’s good to see guys like Luds [Lewis Ludlam] being unreal after going away with England.

“He’s the perfect role model for me coming into this group. He’s a fantastic leader, his work rate is unbelievable and when he comes back, he’ll fit seamlessly back in.

“But it’s my job to put as much pressure on him as possible and that’s the aspiration of everyone at this group.”

Graham knew upon signing that his game would have to reach another level if he was to successfully bridge the considerable gap in quality that exists between the Championship and the Premiership.

When asked how much he has improved since last summer, Graham said: “Massively, it’s a very different style to what I’ve been used to.

“I’ve probably shown in the last two years at Doncaster that I’m more of a defensive player and I’m hoping to improve my attacking game, which is everything that Saints are about, as well as in recent weeks becoming a hard-edged defensive team.

“That is something that I like to play into, but I think my growth has been massive so far and I hope to keep going up.”

Graham made his sixth start for Saints in last Friday’s Premiership Rugby Cup semi-final at London Irish, a match that ultimately ended in disappointment as the Exiles ran out 30-18 winners.

His previous involvement, off the bench, proved to be much more fruitful however as his defensive qualities were highlighted in the closing stages of Saints’ memorable derby victory over Leicester Tigers.

Unsurprisingly, that 19-18 triumph at Welford Road is a highlight of Graham’s time at cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens so far and he is determined to create similar memories in the season’s run-in.

“For me, that’s something that, on reflection if I was to put myself in this position even last year, I probably wouldn’t have expected it,” Graham said.

“So, every opportunity that I’m getting I’m loving and it was a pretty special occasion. Obviously not being a local lad, you can tell from the boys that have been around for a long time and played in lots of derbies how much it means.

“It was almost a sell-out, it was awesome. Those are the games you really get up for, and that’s why we play the game.

“I’ve grown up watching those games since I was about five, seeing them on TV, and that was just pretty mind-blowing to be a part of it.”

Sam Graham

It is set to be a dramatic conclusion to the Premiership season, with almost every club in with a shout of qualifying for the play-offs at the end of the campaign.

Such a dog-eat-dog environment is something Graham became used to in the Championship with Doncaster and he feels this has prepared him for what lies ahead in the next three months.

He said: “In the Championship, there probably were a couple of games where you felt you were going to win, but I found in my experience that it wasn’t like that.

“It sometimes can be more of a mental challenge than a physical challenge, going to Ampthill away or Caldy nowadays, where you have to be on the money with your brains more so than the physical side.

“It just goes to show in this league that if you make a mistake, you get punished and that’s possibly where we’ve not got the rub of the green with a couple of games this year, but we’re working on that and it will come right.”

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