Wade Graham is confident his tackling technique can withstand the NRL again after spending nine months sorting the issues that led to three separate concussions last year.
Graham made his return to rugby league on Monday night, suffering a syndesmosis injury that could delay his start to the season in the Sharks’ pre-season win over Canterbury.
The Cronulla captain is due for scans on Tuesday night, hopeful there’s no serious damage so he can face Canberra in round one.
“It’s frustrating because I was ready to go,” Graham told AAP.
“Worst case if it’s grade-three and surgery it will be six or so weeks.
“But I am not feeling too bad, so hopefully I can be back soon.”
Regardless of when it comes, Graham’s eventual full-blown return will be a triumph.
He was knocked down by three separate head knocks last season, with the last of those in June prompting Cronulla officials to end his year early.
A meeting with his former NSW State of Origin captain Boyd Cordner convinced him he didn’t need to follow his path and retire.
But there was work to be done.
Each of Graham’s three concussions came from getting his head in the wrong spot in tackles, noting the flaw in his technique – ducking his head too early as ball-carriers ran right to left on him.
“I have worked hard, really hard, on a lot of things like my footwork and my contact,” Graham said.
“Even the thought process in the contact … my tackle selection more than anything.”
He suffered an early knock in training before Christmas, but rebounded out of that with more confidence he would be fine and now carries no mental scars.
Graham’s cause has been aided by the return of Steve Price as a defensive coach, while defence was also new coach Craig Fitzgibbons’ department as an assistant at Sydney Roosters.
“Fitzy has been great, Pricey is back and is someone I have a good relationship with. So we’ve worked hard on it,” Graham said.
“It’s more just working on footwork patterns and decision-making under fatigue and tackle selection under fatigue.
“We do plenty of scrimmage where it’s not 100 per cent contact but it’s pretty decent.
“We get a lot of repetition, repetition, repetition. I’ve done the work, I feel good.”
Graham has not been the only Shark to have a focus on defence this summer.
Cronulla leaked 24 and 23 points per game over the past two years, a far cry from the 16.8 they let in when they grinded their way to the 2016 premiership.
“Fitzy is an out-and-out defensive coach. He lives and breathes it … His systems, his principles. He thinks about them every day,” Graham said.
“He is obviously the head coach, and he has the final say (on the style we play).
“Time will tell (whether our style goes back to the 2016 grind), we’re only in the early stages.”