"IF YOU can't run, you can't play."

In his glowing praise of Jack Graham's career-best performance in last Thursday night's season-opening victory over Carlton, that line from Richmond coach Damien Hardwick might have stuck with a few AFL recruiters.

It certainly stuck with Graham.

The game is evolving to suit players like the tireless 23-year-old. The running machines that can go all day, from contest to contest, and impact through their aerobic capacity and their ability to constantly compete.

Hardwick's praise of Graham's endless endurance might have been one of the first times the youngster's work ethic has been highlighted publicly. But, internally, his running patterns are frequently used by the Tigers in team meetings as a means of setting the benchmark for the entire squad.

But yet, the dual premiership star – who was cruelly denied the opportunity to become a triple premiership player by a shoulder injury sustained in the 2019 preliminary final – hasn't always been known for his running.

Now seemingly one of the steals of the 2016 NAB AFL Draft, Graham slipped all the way to Richmond at pick No.53, having been told by several clubs that his endurance base wasn't up to scratch for an AFL footballer.

It stung Graham, who knew his aerobic capacity was his biggest strength. It was even more difficult to take given it had come after a junior season in which he had captained South Australia during the NAB AFL Under-18 Championships, where he won the Larke Medal as the carnival's best player.

SA's Jack Graham is tackled by Vic Country's James Worpel at the 2016 NAB AFL U18 Championships. Picture: AFL Photos

But it was also feedback that has since fuelled his rapid rise at Punt Road. Graham became a premiership player after just five AFL games, won a second flag after 55, and has played in 11 finals in 56 career matches.

And last Thursday night, he showed he had more gears to fly through in the years ahead. He won a career-high 33 disposals against Carlton, racked up a career-high 836m gained, produced a career-high 11 inside-50s, and had a career-high 19 handball receives.

All with that criticism still ringing in his ears.

"I think I've always had it," Graham told AFL.com.au.

"The recruiters grabbed me at the wrong time. I was coming off a torn quad and I couldn't really do anything at the Combine, with the testings there.

"I think they judged me too early, whereas I always thought I could run. Being able to show that to everyone now, it's pleasing."

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Graham concedes that despite feeling as fit as ever he may have suffered from a touch of cramp at three-quarter time on Thursday night, as the effects of a return to 20-minute quarters began to catch up with him.

But, remarkably, he still had 13 disposals in the final term alone to muster his most productive quarter when it mattered most. It was yet more evidence of his outstanding endurance base.

"At half-time and especially at three-quarter time, I just couldn't believe that I had another quarter to go. But everyone was feeling it," Graham said.

"To be honest I was just thinking, 'gee, my legs are sore and I'm starting to cramp and I've still got another quarter to go'. As much as I knew I'd had a bit of the ball, I just had to refocus and try to get through that last quarter."

Richmond's Jack Graham and Shane Edwards tackles Carlton's Tom Williamson in round one, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

Graham's ability to finish the match so strongly wasn't just validation of his own belief in his fitness base, it was also further evidence of Richmond's willingness to see qualities within draft prospects that other clubs might miss.

Now, Graham is flourishing on the back of the trust placed in him by the Tigers. He has been allowed to play to his strengths, with the club hopeful it will subsequently see him improve even further this season to become one of its most important players in the quest for a fourth flag in five years.

"He's a transition mid, the game comes to him now," Hardwick said of Graham.

"It's a transition game … that's as simple as it is. You look at the way he runs and if you watch the tape, he's an incredible athlete that goes from contest to contest.

"The way the game is structured now because it's longer, he gets better as the game goes on. He's an incredible aerobic beast and he can just run. He gut-runs as hard as I've ever seen."

Hardwick's next line might have pricked the ears among rival recruiters just as much.

"You would've noticed that the opposition mob tonight were heavily into him, as were a number of other sides," the Richmond coach smiled.

Indeed, Carlton had made a significant push to sway the out-of-contract Graham to swap Punt Road with Ikon Park during last year's Trade Period. Essendon and Adelaide had also unsuccessfully attempted to prise the youngster away from the Tigers.

The Crows were perhaps the most inviting destination, had Graham chosen to leave, given they had the lure of tempting the young midfielder with a return to his home state of South Australia.

But Graham instead opted to pledge his future to Richmond, signing a three-year deal on the eve of the club's finals campaign to ensure he would remain with the Tigers for his best years.

"I was never really too close to leaving," Graham said.

"It's your manager's job to put your name out there and to see what interest there is. There was obviously talk about other clubs, but I always wanted to stay at Richmond and I kind of always knew that I was going to end up staying at Richmond.

"It was more just about having a listen to see what other clubs have to say about me and how they valued me.

"But I was rapt that there was a deal done, especially leading into finals. Being able to put that aside and just play footy, I was rapt. I'm super excited to be here for the next three years."

Jack Graham (centre) celebrates a goal with Jason Castagna and Jayden Short in the 2020 Grand Final. Picture: AFL Photos

The talk of Graham potentially heading elsewhere had reached a crescendo when he was dropped from Richmond's best team ahead of a round nine clash with the Western Bulldogs last year.

Having been shifted to a wing, Graham hadn't won more than 16 disposals in a game for the entire season and was told he needed to see more of the ball to reclaim his place in the side.

He would ultimately miss three matches, before going back to basics. Unsurprisingly, it was his work ethic that saw him recalled and what helped him string together 10 consecutive games on his way to a second flag in the back-half of the season.

"I knew I was out of form," Graham said.

"The midfield that we've got with Dustin Martin, Trent Cotchin, Dion Prestia, Kane Lambert, Shane Edwards and those guys … it's a solid midfield.

"I knew that I had to work hard and the one thing that I've probably got over those blokes is my fitness. I knew if I could bring that, as well as playing my role, there might be a position there for me."

The result was premiership success, something that had cruelly eluded Graham in 2019.

Having been a mainstay in Richmond's team for much of that year, Graham dislocated his shoulder in the first quarter of the side's preliminary final victory over Geelong. He played through the pain barrier, finishing the match valiantly, but wasn't able to recover for the Grand Final the following week.

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Graham off with shoulder concern

Jack Graham is assisted to the bench after hurting himself during play

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After tasting the ultimate glory in 2017, Graham's preliminary final efforts in finishing the contest with a severely damaged shoulder were credited by Hardwick as "a massive, positive … chapter in our history" and as an achievement that was "simply incredible".

But not playing still left its scars, fuelling the gutsy North Adelaide product with added motivation to return to the game's biggest stage last season.

"As much as I felt involved in 2019, I still wasn't in the 22," Graham said.

"That did hurt. At the same time, with 2020 going on, it was just such a weird year. Being out of the side was obviously disappointing, so I wanted to work hard to get back in. It's crazy how it all unfolded, with the year we had.

"It was so much better to be a part of that premiership, having missed out the previous year. Especially to play with two of my best mates, Liam Baker and Jayden Short. As rapt as I was for them in 2019, I wasn't a part of it.

"Last year, getting to celebrate that with those two blokes, it was pretty special."