James Graham: Bulldogs' loss is clearly Dragons' gain

From the opening kick-off it was clear Dragons prop James Graham was up for this occasion, taking the first hit-up, charging into former teammates in a typical bullish charge. It was the first time the England international had played against the Bulldogs since his departure and he looked determined to continue his fine 2018 form.

Graham was offloaded by the Bulldogs at the end of last season as the true damage caused by sacked coach Des Hasler's recruitment policies became apparent. Hasler had assembled a team that he was able to lead to two grand finals, but one he was unable to afford under the salary cap. Back-ended contracts were the club's way of delaying the inevitable, paying top line players less initially with the promise of a big pay day at the end of their stay at Belmore.

It was a house of cards that had to fall and the mid-season signing of Aaron Woods and Kieran Foran spelled the end for fan favourites Josh Reynolds and Graham. The club couldn't afford the back-ended contracts it had already lined up, but Hasler's inexplicable solution was to bring in two more big-money players.

If it were up to Graham, he'd still be wearing the blue and white. Here he was, running onto ANZ Stadium, wearing the Big Red V, while receiving pay cheques from both clubs. Here he was, coming up against the bearded Woods, who effectively took his jersey.

Graham played 25 minutes of the first half and the Bulldogs mounted their fightback after the break, while he was riding the exercise bike on the sideline. He came back on ten minutes into the second half and the Dragons lifted again.

With 14 minutes remaining and the scores locked at 16-16, Graham ran towards the Bulldogs line, stepped and passed, doing enough to draw the attention of the man wearing his old jersey. Woods dropped a late shoulder into Graham, giving away a penalty in front which resulted in Gareth Widdop kicking the Dragons back into the lead, 18-16, ultimately the final score.

With seven minutes to go, Graham hobbled off, seemingly done for the evening.

"I wanted him on the field at the end of the game, that's for sure. He was blowing hard at the back end of his stint so I got him off and just gave him just a couple of minutes spell and then put him back out there," Dragons coach Paul McGregor said after the game.

Back on for the final minutes of the game, Graham lined up a rampaging David Klemmer, returning the ball from a goal-line drop out and stopped him in his tracks.

When asked about Graham's contribution McGregor was generous in his praise of the veteran.

"He's a very passionate man, he talks the talk and walks the walk. He does everything to make someone else look better," McGregor said.

"It was a big week for him, he has been a big feature of what the Bulldogs have done in the past and he's a man of good character and we're fortunate enough now to have that leader in our group so I needed him to fill in with that experience at the back end of playing in a big game against his old team."

McGregor is fully aware that the Bulldogs' loss has been his gain. Graham has been at the heart of the Dragons' success this season. They sit atop the ladder after 14 rounds, while the Bulldogs are challenging the Eels for the wooden spoon.