When the Premiership Rugby Cup draw was made for the 2023/24 season, Northampton Saints flanker Sam Graham could afford himself a wry smile.
For the first time this year the competition included Championship teams setting up the prospect of some unique fixtures and reviving some head-to-heads that have been less frequent in the professional age of rugby union.
Among the teams in Saints’ pool are two of Graham’s former employers, with Bristol Bears hosting the men in Black, Green and Gold on Saturday 13 October while Doncaster Knights (the club the 26-year-old left to head to cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens) are in town on Saturday 7 October.
“How typical is that,” said Graham. “It’s funny, the two teams I’ve been at before, Bristol and Donny, we’re playing both of them in this Cup competition. It’s awesome for me.
“It gives me something a little extra to chase in these games and it means more. I am so excited to face Donny again and certainly Bristol too. The last time we played Bristol at their place, it ended fairly horribly on what was quite a big night for me and I’d love to put that right.
“I think it’s really good for rugby having Championship teams in the PRC. We know the state of rugby at the moment with last year being the most turbulent one to date.
“Having played in the Championship, all everyone in the Championship wants is to get a seat at the top table and to show what they can do.”Sam Graham
“Now the shoe is on the other foot, with me being in a Prem side and playing against Champ sides. It is the perfect emotional test for those boys who are going to be coming out flying against us. We’ve come off the back of two pre-season games where we probably haven’t shown what we’re fully about yet. It’s the perfect opportunity.”
Tests against Championship clubs don’t get much bigger than Ealing Trailfinders away. The ambitious side have won 36 of their last 44 games in the second tier.
But a quarter of those total losses over the past three seasons were two inflicted by Doncaster, with Graham featuring prominently in both 2021/22 matches – making him well-placed to assess the challenge ahead for Saints on Sunday (1pm kick-off) at Trailfinders Sports Ground.
“Ealing want a scalp, they’ve been trying to do that for years,” Graham said. “In fairness they’re very capable of doing it. They’ve had pre-season games against Premiership sides probably ever since I’ve known about Ealing.
“Ealing are a good team and have got some fire power, but so do we. We may have a young team but that doesn’t matter. It’s the first game where we’ve got something on the line.”Sam Graham
“There’s three things that we can win this season and the Prem Cup is one of them. So it doesn’t matter who we’ve got out on the pitch, we’re going out there to win – and they’re going to be doing the same of course.”
Graham is set to be one of the most senior and experienced players in Saints’ squad heading south as he looks to build on a strong first campaign in Black, Green and Gold.
Following his switch from Doncaster in the summer of 2022, Graham made 20 appearances across the season, including as a replacement in the Premiership semi-final loss to Saracens.
He said: “To feature so heavily as I did last year, I’m very happy with what I did but the goalposts move again. To finish the season in a semi-final is not where we want to go as a Club. Personally I want to be in those big games and start the season with a lot of excitement and all the energy is going towards that really.
“Last season was the benchmark, although it was probably more than what I expected. That sort of exceptional behaviour then becomes acceptable and for me, that’s really got to be the bottom line.
“I think in terms of what changes for me? Nothing. I’ve got to do exactly what I did last year. If I keep doing that with the things I learned from last year, I’ve just got to keep pushing forward.”