From chef's kitchen to rugby excellence for Doncaster Knights captain Sam Graham

Woring as a chef in a Michelin-starred restaurant has given Doncaster Knights captain Sam Graham a perfect preparation for his club’s title tilt – and, for that matter, anything else rugby union throws his way.

By Dave Craven
Monday, 7th March 2022, 2:05 pm
Updated Monday, 7th March 2022, 2:43 pm
Sam Graham
Sam Graham

The impressive flanker has been cooking up a storm in the Championship this term.

However, for Graham, one of Boden’s first signings when he joined from Premiership Bristol Bears ahead of last season, this is all small fry.

He is an unusual beast in the world of professional rugby in that he came into the arena late having initially forged out a highly-promising career in an entirely different trade.

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Sam Graham, far left, working at the Bybrook, Manor House in Castle Combe.

Not long ago, Graham – at just 24, one of the youngest captains around – was working in elite hotels, including preparing food for the England national team at their Pennyhill Park base while enviously sneaking a glance at Eddie Jones’ training regime.

Now, after a fascinating rise, he is being tipped by many to go on and face many of those elite international players in the Premiership whether Doncaster succeed or not.

“I was a chef for five years,” recalled Graham.

“I trained as a chef at college and worked alongside it and that was what I was going to do.

“I was sold to the idea that was all I was going to do and all I’ll be able to achieve.

“I never made it in any Premiership academy, or Yorkshire academy or anything.

“I didn’t have that luxury. I developed rugby-wise quite late. Fundamentally I wasn’t good enough to be in one.

“But I went to New Zealand after quitting my job and gave myself one last chance to really make it.

“It’s what I’ve always wanted to do but not many people get this privilege to do it so I really do appreciate and enjoy every moment now because it is a short career and it could have been very different. I could have still been sweating over pots and pans every Saturday night!”

Bristol-born Graham, who was Doncaster’s player of the year last term, started out as a pot washer in Bath’s famous Woods Restaurant, rising to chef before joining the Exclusive Collection hotel group which included Pennyhill Park and Manor House in Castle Combe.

“At the time, three of their places had Michelin stars and Manor House was one,” he recalled.

“I travelled around a bit. I went to Pennyhill Park, sometimes during England’s stay there.

“It was quite funny; I always remember on any of the breaks when I was there I’d always drive to the end of the car park when the rugby was on and I could sit there and look down lengthways on England’s training pitch.

“I’d always think ‘God, I wish that was me’. I’d never last four or five minutes, though, as they’d quickly move me on!”

He must have been highly-skilled to work at such a level?

“I wouldn’t say that; a lot of it is just the willpower to stay standing up for 16 hours!” joked Graham.

“I was a demi chef de partie running a section when I left.

“I did everything except the meat and sauce section which was down to the sous chef or head chef. Working in a Michelin-starred kitchen in a way is quite relatable to the stress and pressures of performing week on week as a rugby player as 95 per cent of a day as a chef is the prep’ and you only have two or three hours where you actually have to deliver the service. It’s like us with the prep’ in the week and performance on the weekend.

“I always think the most pressured situations I’ve been in have been in a kitchen rather than on a rugby pitch.”

Graham’s career path altered dramatically when he decided to ditch his chef whites for the Land of the Long White Cloud.

“I was 19 or 20 when I moved to New Zealand and watched the British Lions out there,” he recalled.

“That wasn’t fully part of the plan. I purely went down there to play rugby after my step-brother Joe Goodman, head of rugby at Bristol University, used some of his contacts to help get me a shot.

“I ended up joining Massey RFC in Auckland. They said you book your flights, we’ll take care of the rest and pick you up from the airport. I turned up at Auckland airport not knowing who I was meeting or where I was going but someone obviously noticed how lost I looked and introduced themselves.

“I was there for nine months and it was unbelievable.”

Graham eventually got the chance to play for North Harbour’s second team.

He added: “I was going back to England to visit my mum and surprise her and they said I could be part of their wider training squad when I returned.

“But I came back in the November and, once again, Joe helped me out. He knew the coaching staff at Bristol and originally he got me in there just to go train with them and get an idea of what a professional environment was like before going back to New Zealand.

“But thankfully Pat (Lam) and Mark Irish, the scrum coach, were keen to get me involved.

“I was looking up at people who I have watched as a diehard rugby fan for so long feeling almost like an imposter who had won a competition.

“There was Steven Luatua, Jordan Crane, Ian Madigan and Luke Morahan who absolutely tore it up against the British Lions when I was watching them in 2013. Star quality everywhere.

“But they had an injury before an A League game and asked if I wanted to play. I came off the bench for 20 minutes and got a phone call from Pat after that asking if I wanted to come back.

“I was full-time for two and half seasons.”

But now he is all about Doncaster Knights, who are battling it out with Ealing Trailfinders and Cornish Pirates for the Championship title.

“I do love it here,” he said.

“And it’d be massive for the club and most importantly for (co-benefactors) Tony (De Mulder) and Steve (Lloyd). They are so proud of Doncaster as a place. That’s what drives them on to where we are now.

"Donny are the most promoted club in rugby. It’d be great to get another.

"But the best thing about this group of boys is every week they are excited to turn up for work. That means they are in the right place.”

*This interview was conducted before the RFU announced that Doncaster Knights had failed to meet the minimum standards criteria for promotion to the Premiership.