It’s fair to say a lot has changed for Wade Graham since his first derby wearing the black, white and blue.
It was seven years ago and Graham had just joined Cronulla from Penrith. The then 20-year-old utility lined up at halfback for the Sharks in round two against St George Illawarra, the reigning premiers.
Cronulla host their bitter local rivals at Southern Cross Group Stadium on Thursday night and it is easy to see how far Graham has come. Now a NSW and Australian representative and premiership winner, Graham is seen among the elite back-rowers in the game.
Far different from the young kid from Blacktown, who steered Cronulla to a win against their fiercest rivals in his first appearance at Shark Park.
“I think I actually clipped Matty Prior high a couple of times too when he was playing for the Dragons. We’ve come on a bit from there,” Graham said.
Having played 160 games for the club and helped deliver Cronulla’s first premiership, Graham understands the rivalry between the teams better than most. But it wasn’t always that way.
“There is [genuine feeling]. You can’t help but feel it. The community really buys into it and you feel it when you’re out and about. You feel it on game day. The derby is something special,” Graham said.
“I say it every year but I didn’t grow up here so I really didn’t know how much it meant to the people in Cronulla and St George who follow the clubs. The first year I came here I was really introduced to it and I couldn’t believe it. There’s definitely feeling in it and it’s good. No matter where the teams are sitting on the table, whether one is coming first and the other coming last, it’s always a close game. Form goes out the window. It’s always a big game.”
It will also be a big game for Josh Dugan, one of Cronulla’s high profile signings for 2018. The former Dragon played 85 games in the red v before defecting to join St George Illawarra’s biggest rivals. It was a signing that Sharks coach Shane Flanagan at the time called one of the biggest in Cronulla’s history given Dugans’ status as a Test and Origin centre.
But Graham believes Dugan is well equipped to handle any pressure that will come in facing his former club.
“It’s always exciting coming up against your old club. Even I still get excited coming up against Penrith. It was that long ago but I still get excited,” he said.
“He’ll have a lot of friends there, a lot of boys he would have created a lot of good memories with. He’ll want to have a good performance this week so hopefully we get the best Duges this week.
“He’s played rep footy since he was a teenager. He’s an international player. Everyone can see the quality of the player he is just by watching the game. Obviously he can help out with the young guys too, a bit of development and teaching. He brings that wealth of experience.
“He would have thought about it for sure. That’s the nature of the game. If you play sport in general but specifically rugby league you’re bloody competitive. And I’m sure Duges is competitive and he’ll be out there to put on a good performance. I suppose just as a teammate we want Duges to play well but we can’t have him focus too much on that. We want him to play well against his old club but we want him to play well for us and do what the team needs him to do to get a win.”