Fairytale start, Port dalliance and a new role: Richmond’s ‘fridge’ on his road to game 100

Last season was frustrating for Jack Graham. He carried a turf toe injury until round 22 when it flared, forcing him to miss the last two games, including the elimination final loss to Brisbane.

Soon after it became clear that tough midfielders Jacob Hopper and Tim Taranto were joining the Tigers.

Dual premiership Tiger Jack Graham plays his 100th game on Friday night.Credit:Darrian Traynor

When Port Adelaide rang to see if Graham might be interested in considering a return to his home state, he contemplated the idea. His manager Marty Pask told Tigers list manager Blair Hartley, who informed the coach Damien Hardwick and Tim Livingstone. All three were fine with Graham looking at the option.

He told people he was returning to South Australia to visit his family but was soon spotted visiting Port Adelaide, and the prospect of Graham leaving Punt Road became news. Hardwick joked with him on the phone that he didn’t know Port Adelaide coach Ken Hinkley was his dad.

That made Graham laugh and there was no issue when he returned to the Tigers’ fold as Port turned their eyes to Jason Horne-Francis.

The footballing dalliance was no surprise. Essendon had also courted Graham at the end of 2020. He stayed then too, a Richmond man.

“It is what it is. It’s part of the game and at the end of the day, people want to play AFL and not just play AFL but play it to a standard and play it well. These things happen,” Graham said.

On Friday night Graham plays his 100th game for the Tigers having found a new role as a mid-forward, drawing on his running power and determination to stick at a task for the team’s benefit.

Insiders say he has grit, a trait that became evident to recruiters in his under-18 year when he went head-to-head at one stage with Port Adelaide bull Sam Powell-Pepper and neither yielded, the sound of crunching bumps reaching the sidelines.

To Graham, that is football.

Jack Graham in the thick of the action against Carlton in round oneCredit:Getty Images

“It comes down to being desperate, like not letting my man have an easy touch, to my second and third efforts and never, never give up,” Graham said.

“That sometimes might mean I am second to the ball with a lot of tackles, but I just want to do everything I can to help the team and if that’s me applying pressure, that’s what I’ll do.”

Ironically, given that Graham became renowned for his tackling, it was the difficulty of shifting him in a tackle that led former teammate Alex Rance to label him “the fridge” soon after Graham arrived at the Tigers.

He averages 5.6 tackles a game but is working to broaden his game beyond that.

“Naturally, all my defence stuff will be there, I’ll give 110 per cent. But if I can work on my craft of ground balls, being clean, first gives, reading the actual game a lot better.” Graham said. “That’s when I can really take my game to the next level.”

He is a valuable Tiger, respected at Punt Road for his unassuming leadership. He is more likely to make a quiet phone call to check in on a teammate needing a hand than stand in front of the group demanding standards. And he has plenty of experience to draw on now.

After just five games Graham had already played in front of 392,608 spectators, won a premiership, earned a Norm Smith Medal vote and was a life member at Richmond.

He won his spot late in 2017 when he dominated a full-press drill at training ahead of the second-last game of the season and Hardwick walked off the track determined to play him.

The ride of his then short football life ran uninterrupted as he kicked two of his three goals and shut down Adelaide playmaker Rory Sloane in the second half of the grand final.

It was a strange turn of events for the former Crows fan, who had copied a teammate’s haircut while at school a couple of years before joining him at Richmond.

“I got a ‘Dusty’ haircut in year 10 or year 11, short on the side, big out the back and the point at the front. I don’t think Mum and Dad were too happy with it,” Graham laughed.

The enormity of what he achieved did not really sink in until he found himself ruled out of the 2019 decider after dislocating his shoulder in the preliminary final, opening the way for Marlion Pickett’s fairytale debut.

But Graham doesn’t sugarcoat the mixed emotions he felt having to sit in the stands and watch his teammates destroy the Giants.

“I hated hearing all the stories of 2019 because I played the majority of the year and as much as the boys and the coaches supported me and I felt part of the win but, you know, you’re not really,” Graham said.

His bravery in staying on the ground with a dislocated shoulder was lauded but people who knew him best around the club knew missing out would burn.

It made 2020 his greatest triumph, reinventing his game while in Queensland to make sure he was part of the Tigers’ premiership triumph.

“I always look back at 2020 because I made up for missing out on 2019. That one was the one that meant the most,” Graham said.

Now he’s hoping to slot into a pattern of a premiership every three years as he remains a key part of a rejigged Richmond. A 100-game Tiger, with not only a life membership but joining Graeme Landy and Jeff Hogg’s names on the locker reserved for No.34. A Richmond man.

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