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Graham was awarded the life membership at a special general meeting of the union earlier this week.
Graham said he was humbled by the award and it was an honour.
He first played for Otago in his first year out of school in 1976 and played more than 100 games for the Otago side.
He went on to coach the Otago team and also was chairman of the Otago board when the union was looking at going out of business in 2012 because of large debts.
It managed to get through via a rescue package and agreements with creditors.
Graham said it was tough times during that period and he had become disillusioned with NZ Rugby (NZR) and its lack of financial support for the grassroots of the game. It was still trying to recover.
He said he was frustrated the lack of funding for the amateur side of the game when all the money was going to the professional game.
It had become almost untenable and he had moved on from being chairman the year after the union was saved from bankruptcy.
Graham said he had just become a watcher of NZ rugby and felt "we had lost our way in the last 10 years."
He said the new Super Rugby Aotearoa competition showed what NZ could do with a competition within its own borders and it did not have to play against Australian and South African teams.
Hopefully, NZR could learn from that and get back to what was important — clubs and the provincial game.