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Will Carpenter


Posted Friday, January 19th 2018

In-Depth: Hard work is recipe for success for former chef Sam Graham

It was while working in the kitchen at The Manor House, just outside Bath, that chef Sam Graham’s mind began to wander.

After a brief and unsuccessful trial period with Bath’s Academy, previous plans for a career in professional rugby had been traded for life in the kitchen. But while slicing, frying and garnishing at the five-star country house and golf club, Graham knew where he’d rather be.

Fast forward two years and the 20-year-old is living that dream - having signed a two-year Academy contract at Bristol Rugby following a highly-impressive trial period - and now has his sights set on cooking up a storm in the blue and white hoops.

“Working as a chef is tough, it’s hard labour,” said Graham, reflecting on his past career.

“It’s quite anti-social, so when you’re doing it, your mind does wander and you think about all the places you’d rather be. I just remember constantly thinking: ‘I really want to be playing rugby’, and that was the turning point.

“When you’re not quite enjoying something, you think about all of the other things you could be doing - that really sticks with you.

“I then had to find the confidence and belief in myself that I could make the change. As soon as I realised that I really wanted it and I could make it happen, that was it.”

Sam Graham flies over for a try against Leinster A at Donnybrook (JMP UK).

As a youngster, Graham played for Bath minis, before making the move to Chippenham RFC aged 11. From here, county honours followed, as did an opportunity to train with Bath’s Academy – but when that was stopped in its tracks, Graham found himself contemplating a career away from the sport he had his heart set on.

“For one reason or another, that didn’t work out and that was quite devastating,” he said.

“I was at a loose end and had to make a decision and start focusing on a career. I was always interested in cooking and remain so to this day, but it’s one thing to love what you’re doing and another to do it every day, so realising that you don’t actually want to do that for the rest of your life, is tough, but also led to making the change.”

A successful rugby stint at Massey RFC in Auckland kick-started Graham’s revival, before a conversation with Academy forwards coach, Mark Irish, set the wheels in motion.

“I was in New Zealand for nine months, which was sorted out for me through an old coach of mine.

“Working as a chef is tough, it’s hard labour. I just remember constantly thinking: ‘I really want to be playing rugby’, and that was the turning point."

Sam Graham

“That same coach, who is director of rugby at University of Bristol, knows Mark Irish, so he got in contact with Mark to let him know I was back from New Zealand and to find out if there an opportunity to come in and train. That’s how it initially started.

“I came in on a Thursday before the Gloucester A League game - I’d sent in some game footage and my rugby CV beforehand - and ended up getting on to the bench. It just evolved from there.”

Graham had been due to fly back to New Zealand’s North Island later this month - instead, he’s preparing for an important run-in at Ashton Gate, which could lead to him featuring in English rugby’s top-flight next season.

“It’s quite surreal for me,” said Graham. “I had booked a return flight to New Zealand, which is meant to be going back at the end of this month, but to get this opportunity is something I’m very excited about.

“I’ve left a lot of friends over there, people who I won’t necessarily see for a while, but this is such a huge experience and opportunity. There was no turning back.”

Sam Graham scrums down against Doncaster Knights at Ashton Gate (JMP UK).

A debut try and assist against Leinster A at Ashton Gate in the British and Irish Cup saw Graham make a blistering start to life in the hoops, and the dynamic back-row forward is now targeting an appearance in the GKIPA Championship before the season is out.

“My short-term goal is to play as much as possible,” he said. “I’d love to get a Championship cap before the end of the season. That’s another goal, but it’s the day-by-day improvement I’m after.

“The guys you’re training with day in, day out, they are of such a standard that you naturally up your game to try and reach their levels and fit in. The next job is to keep pushing forward.”

As someone who has taken the unconventional route into professional rugby, Graham is keen to follow in the footsteps of another, Sam Jeffries, who was picked up from University of Bristol having also impressed in the A League.

Graham in action for Chippenham RFC.
...and on the charge against Leinster A (JMP UK).

Earlier this season, Jeffries – now an ever-present in Pat Lam’s side – signed an extension to his Bristol Rugby contract, with Graham citing him as ‘the perfect role model’.

“He actually followed a similar path,” said Graham. “He came in while still at university and he’s smashed his opportunity.

“He’s taken it so well and he works so hard off the pitch. He’s always in the video room, he’s running the lineout now, and that’s a position that I’d like to be in. It’s a position I’m striving to get to.”

The transformation is a remarkable one for the reluctant chef, who knows hard work and commitment on and off the field is the recipe for success at Ashton Gate.