Graham relishing Welford Road cauldron
Newcastle’s last away victory over Leicester Tigers saw Gary’s father George coming off the bench in a 25-19 triumph during the Falcons’ march to the 1997-98 Premiership title, in what turned out to be Dean Richards’ last game as a Leicester player.
That Tuesday-night skirmish might now be just a distant memory, but with Newcastle sat at fourth in the Aviva Premiership table and Tigers breathing down their necks in fifth the Kingston Park club have every reason to travel down to the East Midlands with confidence.
“I’ve never played at Welford Road before so it holds no fear in that sense, but I know it will be a big atmosphere,” said Graham, the 25-year-old who arrived last summer from Jersey and has shone during his 14 first-team appearances.
“We’ve got two of the top-five teams in the league to play in our remaining two games, there’s a huge amount to go for and it’s exciting for the lads.
“Leicester are a top-quality side, there’s no doubt about that, but we’ve got a game plan in place and a lot of talent in the squad. They maybe struggled a bit in the early part of the season but they’ve found their rhythm now, and even taking into account a home defeat to Northampton in their last game they’re still one of the form sides in the league.
“Good sides turn it on at the business end of the season, that’s where we want to be and we’ve put ourselves in a position to really kick on towards the semi-finals. We’re not hiding away from the fact that Friday will be a tough ask but we’ve shown over the course of the season that we can compete with the best, and Leicester will know that.
“If we stick to our game plan and do our basics really well then we can’t ask for any more.”
Enjoying a breakthrough season which saw him called up for England’s Six Nations squad before injuring his neck in the lead-up to their opener against Italy, Graham reflected: “It has been a bit of a roller-coaster, to be honest.
“The last 13 or 14 weeks has been a nightmare with being out injured prior to returning against Sale a fortnight ago, but from where I was at the start of the season to where I am now, I can’t really complain. I’ve almost done what I wanted to do for my first year at a Premiership club, there’s a bit more left to finish off the campaign and then it’s a case of flying into pre-season and really looking to build again.”
On his England experience, the former Carlisle and Gala flanker added: “It was an amazing environment to be in and I’d never expected to experience that, if I’m totally honest.
“Everyone was very welcoming, it’s all geared towards winning and the only downside is that I got injured before the first game. That set me back a bit but I’m still trying to use little bits that I learned during the training camps, and just looking to make any little improvements that I can.”
Even in Graham’s absence the Falcons continued their early-season form, reaching the semi-finals of the Anglo-Welsh Cup and European Challenge Cup, the latter of which delivered a defeat at Gloucester last Friday.
“We never really turned up, to be honest, and it was a bad day at the office,” reflected the Cumbrian.
“From one to 23 we all didn’t put in the performance that we’d trained for, but that’s rugby, and you put it to rest during the week. We know we’re a better side than we showed last Friday, and it’s on to bigger and better things.”
Storming back onto the scene two weeks ago with a man-of-the-match performance during the Falcons’ dramatic 35-30 home victory over Sale Sharks, Graham said: “It’s never great being out injured but we’ve got incredible strength in depth here, and the position we’re in is a testament to the squad that has been put together.
“It doesn’t matter who’s in or out, we’re always putting it in and really supporting the guys who have the shirts in any given week. We’ve beaten some big teams this season, we’ve won a lot of away games and we’re taking on these boys with a lot of confidence. It has been a bit of a nightmare having to watch so much of it from the stands through injury but I’m back into it now, and just looking forward to playing my part in the final push.
“In terms of the comeback game against Sale I didn’t quite expect it to go as well as it did, and for a first game back I wasn’t expecting to play 80 minutes. I was blowing quite a bit, truth be told, but I was lucky on the day in terms of getting the bounce of the ball and things like that. I was knackered by the end but to get that win was great, because Sale are one of the in-form teams in the Premiership. Hopefully we can do the same against Leicester.
“It’ll be tough on Friday night and I’ve got no doubt about that, but we’re ready for it.”