Former Great Britain forward James Graham did not try to hold back the tears after ending nine years of hurt in St Helens’ highly-dramatic Grand Final win over Wigan.
A freak try in the last play of the last match of the elongated Super League season from teenager Jack Welsby enabled the 35-year-old Graham to bring his 18-season career to a fitting close with an 8-4 triumph at the KCOM Stadium in Hull on Friday night.
The final whistle sparked unbridled scenes of raw emotion from the fiery Maghull-born Graham and, as he began to come to terms with the reality of retirement, his mind went back to 2011 and a crushing 32-16 defeat by Leeds at Old Trafford.
The heartbreak of a fifth successive Grand Final defeat was made more acute by the fact that Graham was captain in his last match before leaving the club for a stint in the NRL, unaware that he would ever get a chance to make amends.
Graham, the most-capped England player in rugby league history, was also in the Canterbury Bulldogs team that lost to Sam Burgess’ South Sydney in the 2014 NRL Grand Final but Welsby’s last-ditch try finally enabled him to add to his only previous title triumph in 2006.
Winger Tommy Makinson, whose unsuccessful drop-goal attempt led to Welsby’s opportunist score, was the first man to embrace Graham at the final whistle as the pair recalled the stark contrast in emotions to 2011.
“We said ‘remember 2011 when we were crying our eyes out’,” Makinson said. “That was a tough one to take so then to send him off with that is magical.”
Graham, who was released early from his contract with St George Illawarra to enable him to enjoy one last hurrah with his old Super League club, stayed out on the pitch long after the final hooter to savour the moment after completing his 228th appearance for Saints.
“I just wanted to take some mental photographs of it, an appreciation for what the game has done for me,” he said.
“But this isn’t why I came back. I came back to try to give myself and this group an opportunity, to try and help as much as I could.
“It wasn’t the be-all and end-all to come back and win a Grand Final. I try not to speak about winning, just do what you’ve got to do to get the win.
“It’s still sinking in now. It doesn’t feel real but I’m going to dine out on it for quite a while.”
It is an eighth Super League title for Saints, who retained the title for the first time for 20 years.
“Not many teams go back to back,” Graham said. “It’s been an adversity-stricken year for a lot of people and I can’t speak highly enough of the way this group has carried themselves.
“Nine years ago, Tommy Makinson was crying because he lost and today’s he’s crying because he won.
“I’ll be forever grateful to these players for what we did as a group and on a personal note for how I finish.
“When you lose a Grand Final, it is devastating. I’ve felt numerous times how the Wigan lads are feeling. It’s the antithesis of emotions. I’m glad I’m on the winning side tonight.”
Listen to The Final Hooter podcast, featuring exclusive interviews, every week. SUBSCRIBE to Love Rugby League on Apple Podcasts.