FORMER Saints prop James Graham is set to join one of Rugby League’s most exclusive clubs when he leads out Great Britain against the Tonga Invitational XIII in Hamilton on Saturday.
The 34-year-old Liverpudlian is the only member of the 2019 Rugby League Lions to have played previously for Great Britain, having won his first five international caps wearing the blue and red V in 2006-7.
Since then, he has earned a further 44 caps for England – meaning he will win his 50th international cap this weekend.
Graham will become only the fourth British player in the history of Rugby League to reach a half century – following Jim Sullivan, Mick Sullivan and Adrian Morley.
They were joined last autumn by the former New Zealand captain Ruben Wiki, and the Australian trio of Darren Lockyer, Cameron Smith and Petero Civoniceva – who also represented Fiji – as the seven players to be awarded Golden Caps by the Rugby League International Federation in recognition of their achievement in winning 50 international caps.
Now Graham is set to become the eighth recipient of a Golden Cap.
The game against the Tonga Invitational XIII - Great Britain’s first appearance on the international Rugby League stage since 2007, and the start of a four-match tour which continues with two Tests against New Zealand and one against Papua New Guinea - was confirmed as having full international status at last week’s meeting of International Rugby League in Sydney.
Great Britain and the Tongans have each submitted an initial squad, including several St Helens players to the tournament organisers, which must be reduced to 19 on Friday morning UK time – 24 hours before the match.
Australia-born duo Lachlan Coote and Jackson Hastings are set to start against Tonga on Saturday.
Head coach Wayne Bennett gave a clear indication of his line-up for the game in Hamilton when he announced a 21-man squad, omitting Jake Trueman, Joe Philbin and Blake Austin from his full touring party.
Coote (St Helens) and Hastings (Salford), who both qualify through an English grandparent, are lined up to start at full-back and scrum-half respectively, while Wigan's Zak Hardaker is set to start at centre.
Hardaker, who was a late call-up, is a specialist full-back but his last appearance for England was a centre and he looks set to get the nod ahead of Jake Connor.
The squad announcement was delayed after the Great Britain squad were evacuated from their Auckland base because of a major a fire at the neighbouring SkyCity Convention Centre.
The centre of Auckland was covered by smoke from the fire and the team have been moved to Hamilton a day earlier than planned to prepare for Saturday's game.
The players, who had been on a day off on Tuesday, left Auckland at 5pm local time to make the 69-mile trip south to Hamilton.
A spokesman said: "It all happened very quickly. Within an hour of being told to pack their bags we were on the coach out of Auckland."
The team were due to train in Auckland on Wednesday before making the trip but will now train in Hamilton instead.
The 24-man squad and support staff flew into Auckland from Sydney on Monday after attending the inaugural World Cup Nines tournament last weekend to embark on the first Lions tour to New Zealand since 1996.
The Great Britain banner was mothballed in 2007 to enable the home nations to compete separately but the Rugby Football League bowed to pressure to bring it back.
England coach Wayne Bennett is in charge of the Lions, who will open their four-match tour against the Tongans at the 25,800-capacity Waikato Stadium and play two Tests against the Kiwis before moving on to Port Moresby to face Papua New Guinea.
The Tongans have included Salford stand-off Tui Lolohea, Warrington forward Ben Murdoch-Masila, Leeds centre Konrad Hurrell and Hull-bound enforcer Manu Ma’u, as well as a host of stars of their run to the semi finals of the 2017 World Cup such as Michael Jennings and Jason Taumalolo.
1. Lachlan Coote (Windsor Wolves, St Helens)
2. Jermaine McGillvary (Deighton Juniors, Huddersfield Giants)
3. Zak Hardaker (Featherstone Lions, Wigan Warriors)
4. Oliver Gildart (Wigan St Patricks, Wigan Warriors)
5. Ryan Hall (Oulton Raiders, Sydney Roosters)
6. Gareth Widdop (Kings Cross, St George Illawarra Dragons)
7. Jackson Hastings (Western Suburbs Red Devils, Salford Red Devils)
8. Chris Hill (New Springs Lions, Warrington Wolves)
9. Josh Hodgson (East Hull, Canberra Raiders)
10. Luke Thompson (Bold Miners, St Helens)
11. John Bateman (Bradford Dudley Hill, Wigan Warriors)
12. Elliott Whitehead (West Bowling, Canberra Raiders)
13. James Graham (c) (Thatto Heath, St George Illawarra Dragons)
14. Josh Jones (Blackbrook, Salford Red Devils)
15. Tom Burgess (Dewsbury Moor, South Sydney Rabbitohs)
16. Jonny Lomax (Orrell St James, St Helens)
17. Alex Walmsley (Dewsbury Celtic, St Helens)
18. Jake Connor (Siddal, Hull FC)
19. Jack Hughes (Golborne Parkside, Warrington Wolves)
20. George Williams (Wigan St Patricks, Wigan Warriors)
21. Daryl Clark (Fryston Warriors, Warrington Wolves)
Tonga Invitational XIII:
Sio Siua Taukeiaho ©
Jason Taumalolo ©