New England leaders making a big impression on Graham

England head coach Wayne Bennett, James Graham and Sam Burgess (right) during a training session
England head coach Wayne Bennett, James Graham and Sam Burgess (right) during a training session
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Former Saints forward James Graham has hailed the influence of new England head coach Wayne Bennett and is expecting Sam Burgess to make a similar impact as captain.

The ex-St Helens prop was chosen by Bennett to lead England in Saturday’s 40-6 win over France in Avignon while newly-appointed skipper Burgess served a one-match ban carried over from the NRL.

Graham was pleased with England’s first performance under their new boss, who he says is already starting to make a big impression on the players.

“He’s really impressed me and everybody that he’s spoken to,” the Canterbury Bulldogs skipper said.

“He keeps things quite simple and instils a lot of confidence and belief into his players.

“Defensively we were pretty good against France and our attack got better as the game wore on.

“Moving forward, we’d look to improve but I’m pretty pleased with how we went about Saturday’s game against a really committed French outfit.”

Graham extended his record as England’s most capped international by leading his country out at Parc des Sports for the fourth time on his 30th appearance but will hand over the captaincy to Burgess for Saturday’s Ladbrokes Four Nations opener with New Zealand in Huddersfield.

The pair have clashed a number of times on the field in Australia, including the last match of the 2016 NRL season but insist they remain friends off it. Graham says he has no problem with the South Sydney forward taking over the captain’s armband as he ends a three-year self-imposed exile from international rugby league.

“I’m 100 per cent happy with that.” Graham said.

“I’m really pleased for him. To be handed the captaincy is massive and I can’t wait to stand alongside him and follow his lead because he’s an outstanding leader.

“I’m genuinely excited to be playing with him again. It’s been a long time. I’m really happy he’s not running against me like he does at Souths. For whatever reasons, he decided to try something new but he’s back where he belongs.

“He’s one of the best forwards in the world and has been for a long time and to have him playing with us, helping us try to achieve our goals, is massive.”

Although England begin their Four Nations campaign on the back of a 2-1 Test series win over the Kiwis, they remain the underdogs with the bookmakers and Graham is refusing to look too far ahead.

“It’s boring to say this but it’s very much a week-by-week thing,” he said.

“We’re not getting ahead of ourselves. All four teams have the same objective and we’re very much taking it week by week.

“I don’t think anyone is looking at the World Cup just yet. We’re very much investing our energies on Saturday.”

Like England, New Zealand have lost several players to injury but they are boosted by the return of scrum-half Shaun Johnson for his first appearance on English soil since he broke English hearts with a last-gasp try and goal in the 2013 World Cup semi-final at Wembley.

“We’re all aware of what he can do,” said Graham, who was in the side beaten 20-18 three years ago.

“He’s a very dangerous player with the ball in hand so we’re going to have to be on our game against him but it’s a team thing, it’s not just about individuals.

“They’ve got plenty of strike power throughout their 17. (Jason) Taumalolo is back and he’s had an outstanding year which helps their cause but they’ve got a few missing, like Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. They’re a strong team and they’ve got plenty of strength in depth.

“Although we take a lot of confidence out of the series win last year, this is a whole new ball game and I don’t know if it will count for much.”