WADE Graham first crossed paths with Luke Lewis almost 20 years ago. The Cronulla captain in waiting was his future teammate’s ball boy at Blacktown City juniors.
They wound up playing for the same local Panthers mob they both worshipped as kids, before the backstreets and turnpikes of the thirteen man game delivered them separately to the Sharks.
Salary cap pressures took them from one end of Sydney to the other. A premiership later, those same forces are threatening to send them asunder once again.
On Friday Graham confirmed that he would be staying in The Shire until the end of 2019 on a two-year extension worth more than $1.4 million. Prop Matt Prior joins him, having recommitted for an extra three seasons himself.
Lewis wants in too for another year at Cronulla if, body and mind willing, he runs around again next year.
But he knows he may also have to sound out a rival club for an 18th NRL season.
Playmakers Jack Bird and Chad Townsend among others, including current skipper Paul Gallen, remain free agents.
The market forces piling up on the Sharks puts the signature of 33-year-old Lewis well down the club’s to-do list.
Graham’s $700,000-plus salary may just be the tipping point in Cronulla’s cap. Not that it would change a thing for a friendship going on two decades.
“I’ve known Wado since he was seven or eight when his dad was my coach as a kid and he was ball boy,” Lewis told www.foxsports.com.au before Graham’s re-signing was confirmed.
“When Wado was coming through the grades I used to get in early before first grade to watch him in the Harold Matts and SG Ball.
“I had a lot to do with him coming up and his family too, they were good value and good to me.
“Now to play a lot of footy with him, we’ve played together in the halves before too, it’s been a great journey together.
“He’s one of my best mates and he’s been around since school and those early, early days.
“Nothing’s really changed and it wouldn’t if we’re not at Cronulla together either. He’s still a ratbag, still likes a joke, same since day one.”
The almighty dollar is now simply a reality of the modern game. Graham and Lewis are well aware it can swing one’s world every which way. Already has once.
In 2010 a 19-year-old Graham went from Panthers prodigy to pariah as the full extent of Penrith’s gross roster mismanagement hit home.
The Sharks circled, lured him east, and two years later did the same when circumstances delivered Lewis in similar fashion.
After 287 first grade outings, Lewis is not fussed if keeping his career going means the roles are reversed.
“You can only do what you can with that and we have 15 grand final winners still at the club, they’re playing more rep footy,” Lewis says.
“So that will test the salary cap for sure. At the moment I’m just going to listen to the body. I don’t want to string anyone along so I’m doing one year at a time.
“I feel great at training and fitness wise, so I don’t want to retire.
“I totally understand that we do have a lot of young guys off contract … (they are) priorities for the club to re-sign.
“But if I have to go somewhere else to keep playing and I feel like I want to play on, I will.”
Graham has developed into one of the game’s premier back-rowers since arriving at the Sharks seven years ago.
Aside from an injury plagued 2014 when it was feared he was on the wane, Lewis has simply retained his status near the top of the second-row pile.
His younger teammate has long been touted as a future club captain because of a clear club-first mantra.
When Lewis was weighing up offers from Cronulla and South Sydney, Graham was willing him to the Sharks, despite the obvious, extra competition for his own starting spot that Lewis would bring.
His rise to NSW honours, with a long-term Origin future in the offing, simply confirm what Lewis has long known about his old ball boy.
“Wado’s been there a long time and he’s a natural leader, always has been to be honest,” Lewis says.
“He’s also been around a lot of good leaders in his career too, but it’s really always been part of his make-up.
“He’s earned his stripes at Cronulla, that’s pretty plain to see. For me it’s always hard, you don’t know where his career could end up.
“But I think no matter if he goes to another club or gets a crack at NSW or Australia, I think Wado’s got it in him to be a great captain and be a really good leader.”