Wayne Bennett talks up James Graham ahead of appearance milestone

Great Britain coach Wayne Bennett has lauded the achievement of James Graham in reaching 50 caps but knows he will not let the occasion get the better of him.

The former St Helens prop will join one of rugby league’s most exclusive clubs on Saturday when he leads out the Lions against the Tonga Invitational XIII in Hamilton on the start of their tour of New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.

The 34-year-old Liverpudlian, who now plays for St George Illawarra, is the only member of the 2019 Lions to have played previously for Great Britain, having won his first five caps in the blue and red V in 2006-7.

Since then, he has earned 44 caps for England, meaning he will reach his half-century at Waikato Stadium.

Bennett, who handed the captaincy to Graham in the absence of both Sean O’Loughlin and Sam Burgess, said: “He’s right up there with the best of them, he’s very passionate.

“To play 50 Test matches for England and Great Britain is quite a remarkable achievement, very few have done it.

“At the same time, all the noise and fuss if you make a big deal about it just detracts everybody from what they’ve got to do and I don’t want to do that.

“James is a great team player and that’s how he thinks and I think the same way.”

Graham says the return of Great Britain after a 12-year hiatus has breathed new life into international rugby league.

“The Lions is an iconic brand, especially in the north of England, and it’s a privilege to have that badge on your chest again,” he said.

“Any time you play representative rugby league is a great honour, you want to do your best for your country.

“For us as individuals and us as a group it’s the same feeling but because it’s been away for so long, it probably carries a bit more weight.

“For a lot of people in the group, when you’re young and dreaming about where your future might take you, the pinnacle is playing for Great Britain.”

Another proud Englishman in Hamilton will be Chris Kendall, who will referee his first Test match, just a fortnight after taking charge of his maiden Super League Grand Final.

Great Britain: L Coote (St Helens); J McGillvary (Huddersfield), Z Hardaker (Wigan), O Gildart (Wigan), R Hall (Sydney Roosters); G Widdop (St George Illawarra), J Hastings (Salford); C Hill (Warrington), J Hodgson (Canberra), L Thompson (St Helens), J Bateman (Wigan), E Whitehead (Canberra), J Graham (St George Illawarra, captain).

Subs: J Jones (Salford), T Burgess (South Sydney), J Lomax (St Helens), A Walmsley (St Helens).

Tonga Invitational XIII: W Hopoate (Canterbury Bulldogs); D Fusitu’a (NZ Warriors), M Jennings (Parramatta), K Staggs (Brisbane), D Tupou (Sydney Roosters); T Lolohea (Salford), Ata Hingano (Canberra); A Fifita (Cronulla), S Havili (Canberra), S Siua Taukeiaho (Sydney Roosters), B Murdoch-Masila (Warrington), M Ma’u (Parramatta), J Taumalolo (North Queensland, capt).

Subs: S Katoa (Canterbury Bulldogs), A Fonua-Blake (Manly), J Asiata (North Queensland), S Tupouniua (Sydney Roosters).

Referee: C Kendall (England).

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