For a few seconds, it looked like David Klemmer’s head might just explode.
In a tense finale to Canterbury’s 2015 Good Friday showdown with South Sydney at ANZ Stadium, Bulldogs captain James Graham had conceded a penalty in front of his posts for late contact when charging down a kick by Rabbitohs halfback Adam Reynolds.
The Bulldogs led 17-16 at the time, and were on track to go some way towards making amends for their 30-6 loss to the Bunnies in the grand final at the same ground six months earlier, but Graham’s desperation dive at Reynolds’ legs incurred a penalty.
Before Bryson Goodwin kicked the goal to secure an 18-17 win for the reigning premiers, Klemmer and Graham stood side by side, seething, disputing referee Gerard Sutton’s decision.
“You’re off your f…ing face,” Klemmer screamed.
The fiery young NSW and Australian front-rower was charged with contrary conduct, served a three-game suspension, and learnt a valuable lesson about crossing the line in the heat of the moment.
As unacceptable as it was, it illustrated the tight bond between protégé and mentor.
After four years together at the Bulldogs, Klemmer and Graham parted ways at the end of 2017 when the English ironman left to join St George Illawarra.
They enjoyed one win each last year in their first meetings as NRL opponents, and will square off again on Sunday when Klemmer’s Knights welcome Graham’s Dragons to McDonald Jones Stadium.
“He was my captain when I first came through, and I’ve got the utmost respect for him,” Klemmer said.
“He’s a good mentor for those Dragons guys coming through. You know what you’re going to get from James every week and he’s a good ball-player as well, and he’s a tough competitor.
“It’s always a good match-up against him, and he’ll be looking for a big game on Sunday as well.”
Klemmer said Graham had taught him the importance of playing well every week – something he has done in his first three games for Newcastle by averaging 36 tackles and 190 running metres.
“When you first come in, you don’t know how the NRL is. It’s a big roller-coaster, performing every week, and you can’t drop off and play one good game every four weeks,” he said.
“You’ve got to be as consistent as you can, and he really showed me how to do that. I’ve taken a lot out of his book and I know what I’m up against.
“It’s always great to play against him, because he’s one of the best forwards to play the game, especially coming over here to play as well.”
Despite his own strong start to his first year in Newcastle, Klemmer has been frustrated by their past two losses to Canberra and Penrith after a first-up win against Cronulla.
“I’m more worried about winning footy games – I’m not worried about myself, I just want to win footy games – and we’re not too far off,” he said.
“Obviously for me, it’s been very disappointing, but it’s easy-fix things … I think we’re just a pass off and just some game management. We know it’s there, and that’s why it’s so frustrating for us to see that because we’re so close and we just want it to happen.”
Knights fans who know only too well how their team struggles to overcome the Dragons will be heartened to learn of Klemmer’s personal success against the Red V. The Dragons have won 11 of their past 13 against Newcastle but Klemmer, playing for the Bulldogs, has won eight of nine.
“They’re a quality footy side,” he said.
“They played semi-final football [last year] and they’ve got representative players everywhere, so obviously we need to prepare well and get ready for a big game … and it’s a big occasion playing for the Alex McKinnon Cup.
“They’re a very vocal bunch up here and I really respect that, and I’m really buying into the culture up here. They’ve been really welcoming as well, so hopefully we can get a good win up here on Sunday and send everyone home happy.”