Under-rated Cowboys winger Ashley Graham finished in a tie with Ben Barba as the NRL’s leading try-scorer in 2012 – and now the talented pair could be in a head-to-head race to make their Origin debuts in 2013.
It has been a decade since Graham burst onto the NRL scene with the Parramatta Eels, and 10 years on, the winger who is as quietly spoken as is he rock solid is still coveting a Queensland Origin debut.
Indeed, in another era, perhaps the dream would be reality by now.
Take the 2012 season for example. While Bulldogs sensation Barba charged to the Dally M Medal and finished with 21 tries from 24 games, he was joined as the NRL’s leading tryscorer by another Maroons hopeful.
That man was Ashley Graham. 21 tries from 22 games. A better strike-rate than Barba … and barely anyone noticed.
“I’m happy to keep a low profile,” Graham says in his laconic way.
“It was a great honour (to finish the NRL’s equal leading tryscorer), but I’m not one for keeping track of tries.
“I just try and do my job for the team and if that leads to personal rewards, that’s great, but it’s not my focus.”
Not that Graham lacks drive or ambition. The best came after round one this year, when the former Eel delivered what he rated the worst game of his career in an error-riddled 18-0 loss to the Titans.
Fearing the axe, Graham sought the help of Cowboys kicking and catching coach Jamie Charman, the former Brisbane Lions AFL star.
Handed a reprieve by Cowboys coach Neil Henry, Graham responded with a hat-trick against the Eels a fortnight later.
That’s the hallmark of an NRL professional, and why Graham, at 28, still plays for the Queensland jumper.
“Origin is still a goal of mine,” Graham said.
“If I don’t play Origin, well I won’t dwell on it, but I haven’t given up hope and if I keep playing well that’s all you can do.
“Dane Nielsen showed last year that if you’re in form at the right time and injured happen, you can be a chance.
“I just hope I’m playing well enough for the Cowboys to put myself in the mix … that’s all I can do.”
Graham came agonisingly close to clinching his maiden Maroons jumper in 2007 when he was named 18th man for game two, only for the emergence of Israel Folau and Yow Yeh to keep his Origin dream at bay.
But one person who never fails to appreciate Graham’s contributions is Cowboys coach and former Maroons assistant Neil Henry.
“Ash has had a wonderful season on that right edge and Tatey has been in great form too so it’s been a good side to go to,” Henry said.
“He’s got some great tries this season, he’s found the line really well but he does a lot of work off the ball too, particularly down our end of the field.”
Maroons veteran Tate, who has forged a potent right-side combination with Graham, says his Cowboys teammate is hugely undervalued.
“I think he’s the most under-rated player in the comp,” said Tate.
“If you have a look at the form Ben Barba is in and Ash Graham has matched him for tries, that’s a fair gauge of the form he has been in this year.
“I sometimes shake my head at some of the criticism he cops because I know how important he is to this team. He often has to do a lot of work to get the tryline and he’s been fantastic all year for us.
“It’s a massive achievement for him to finish top of the tryscoring list with Ben Barba.”