Jack Graham: Saturday’s youngest Grand Final player in rare air

AS OF Saturday, Jack Graham will have played more finals than regular season games.

Brad Johnson played 364 matches, but never experienced the biggest day on the football calendar, while Robert Harvey — Graham’s idol growing up — amassed 383 without a flag.

Timing is everything and Graham, who was drafted with Pick 53 in last year’s national draft, could not have orchestrated his run more sweetly.

On Saturday, he will be the only teenager on the field and one of just three to have notched fewer than 20 senior appearances. The Grand Final will be his fifth AFL game.

Alongside Harvey, Graham’s hero as a budding young on-baller from Tea Tree Gully in suburban Adelaide was Rory Sloane. The two have met once but never on the football field.

Now there is every chance they will square off at the opening bounce.

“I’ve met him once and I don’t know if he remembers meeting me,” Graham told foxfooty.com.au.

“In my draft year I modelled my game off Rory Sloane. I’d be excited coming up against him in any game, let alone a Grand Final. I respect him so much but looking forward to going to war against him on Saturday.”

Graham isn’t exactly a household name. Wearing No. 34, he didn’t debut until Round 22. Despite a near-clean bill of health and several proven performers at VFL level, the 19-year-old has held his spot ever since, averaging eight tackles per outing.

And once Graham got in, he made it count. Winning formulas generally don’t get tinkered with and last year’s South Australian Under 18 captain has benefited from this philosophy more than most.

“I came to the club with hamstring tendinitis,” he said.

“That was hard early because you just want to get respect from all the boys. You get chucked in rehab and away you go. I was due to play the first trial game for the VFL which was about three days before the AFL season. I broke my ankle in a contest after it got stuck underneath Ben Griffiths body.

“That was a setback and was out for about three months. Then I slowly got going again. They’d play me a half, three quarters and then a full game. Then the bye came in which was a bit of a pain in the arse. I finally strung a couple of good games together and I got the call up from Dimma.”

Hardwick broke the news to Graham in a team meeting three days before Richmond demolished Fremantle by 104 points at Subiaco. Jacob Townsend and Graham were two of the three inclusions for this match, both having spent the entire year trolling away in the VFL.

Townsend and Graham have held their spots in Hardwick’s 22 and in many respects symbolise the increased depth Richmond has boasted this year.

“In my first game I was standing in the midfield and to my left I had Martin and to my right I had Cotchin,” Graham said with a cheeky grin of a young man who just 11 months ago was a passionate Crows fan.

“I was like ‘Oh hell!’ This weekend I have Sloane and the Crouch brothers there. I definitely need to pinch myself because of that. It’s come off a lot of hard and I’ve needed a little bit of luck and things have gone my way but I can’t wait.”

There is something about Graham and Grand Finals. He estimates he has played in seven deciders across his junior career. In what could be a nice omen for Tigers fans searching for every morsel of hope, he has won six of them.

But there was one in particular that sticks out in Graham’s mind.

“I was lucky enough to kick a goal after the siren in an Under 13s Grand Final,” he said.

“I was playing for Tea Tree Gully and I took a mark about 25m out with four seconds to go. I was walking back and the siren went. My heart stopped and I saw that we were three points down so I knew we needed a goal. I went back and kicked it.

“It was an amazing feeling even though it missed the post by 30cm. A goal is a goal. It was a pretty special feeling and moment. I think we had a couple of Cokes to celebrate.”

ROLLERCOASTER 12 MONTHS

It may appear as if Graham’s teenage football years were smooth-sailing. But being forced to wait until late in the third round to have your name read out at the national draft would make anyone nervous.

Graham is not one to shun the spotlight, but equally he is not yet interested in searching for it. Having averaged 25 disposals for South Australia last year, most mock drafts had the hard-at-it on-baller going somewhere early in the second round.

Missing the draft combine last October due to a quad injury did not help his cause and as selections in the 20s, 30s and 40s quickly filled up with junior teammates and opponents, Graham became understandably anxious.

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