Keiron Cunningham

A huge interview with Super League’s greatest-ever player, Keiron Cunningham, as part of Rugby League World’s Big Interview series in 2008, a week before Saints’ Challenge Cup Final triumph against Hull FC…

LAST year in Rugby League World, we crowned Keiron Cunningham the greatest Super League player since the competition’s inception in 1996.

To be honest, it wasn’t a hard decision – we didn’t debate the top spot for very long. No player has displayed such extraordinary levels of brilliance year in and year out. True, he hasn’t won a Man of Steel, but he’s been in the running most years. No one else could come close to claiming that.

In 1996 he was one of Saints’ best players as they swept to a League-and-Cup double. He’s still one of their best players.

Throughout that period great players have come and gone. Gamebreakers who have collected individual awards and helped Saints to a multitude of trophies – Goulding, Newlove, Joynt, Long, Martyn, Sculthorpe, Wellens, Albert, Lyon, Roby and now Graham – the list goes on and on.

Cunningham has played with them all and has been just as good, if not better, than each of them. His longevity, not just his ability, is remarkable.

I meet Cunningham at his house in St Helens, where he has lived for 11 years with his wife Lynette and their children Shannah and Jonah.

Lunchtime was too early for Cunningham to meet me – he hadn’t got in until 5 o’clock in the morning. But, no, he hadn’t been out drinking, he hasn’t touched a drop for six years, he was shooting foxes with his son, his best mate Craig and Daniel Anderson tagged along for good measure.

He poses for our photos in his Cup Final suit and immediately disappears to change into a t-shirt and jeans. He’s then ready to tell me about his life in Rugby League.

“Believe it or not, nobody really pushed me into the game,” says Cunningham, younger brother of Eddie and Tommy, two players who had great careers of their own.

“There was no real pressure on me to play the game. I was the youngest of ten kids. The eldest, our Eddie, was this superstar who played for Great Britain and some of my brothers played at some lower levels. Our Tommy played for Warrington and Wales, our Ian played a little bit for Widnes and our Steve played for Swinton but there was no pressure. I was the forgotten one because it was a case of, “the rest of them have done this…”

“I was at junior school, aged seven, when I first got into the game. I’d watched a bit but I had no real interest, then one of the teachers Mr Miller asked me to pull on a shirt and have a go. I was a little tackling machine and I grew to love the sport. I got involved with the local club and played for the town team and for Lancashire.

“It got difficult, though, because I lost my dad at ten and he’d been my guiding light. He took me to games and organised all of my lifts because my mum and dad didn’t drive and my brothers didn’t really have any involvement in my rugby, being that much older. So I was reliant on other people and went from club to club depending on who could take me.

“At town-team level, I played a year above my age so I played against Iestyn and Paul Sculthorpe who was also playing above his age. But the biggest name at that time at our level was Marcus Vassilakopolous. He was something special… absolutely unbelievable. He was my age but played England Schoolboys a year above his age which is an amazing achievement but he was one of those kids who didn’t do any more growing when he got in the Leeds ranks and just drifted away.

“Some players are unbelievable when they’re young but only a handful go on to have the career they want. It’s the same now. I see young lads at Saints who have the talent but not the desire. There are plenty who have come and gone from St Helens and you just want to get hold of them and tell them they’ve got the world at their feet but that they’re in danger of throwing it away. But I’m not sure if people can be taught an attitude. It’s either with you or it isn’t.

“When I was a kid there were lads signing pro at 13 or 14 and I hadn’t signed for anyone until I was Under-16. It makes you panic, wondering if anyone will pick you up. I nearly signed for Widnes and I went to a Wigan summer school and even though I wanted to sign for Saints, I knew I had to sign for somebody. Eventually Saints came in and I was determined to make it.

“I trained myself into the ground at the club and away from the club. I did so much because I wanted to achieve what I’ve achieved now.

“Things were very different when I was first at Saints compared to now. I was 15, going on 16, and dragging tackle shields around a field with Sonny Nickle and Shane Cooper there. I was in awe and hurting but determined not to lag behind. I remember barely being able to walk home.

“You didn’t have much association with the first team back then, compared to the Academy players of today. You’d see them around but wouldn’t have much to do with them unless you were close to being called up.

“Training is totally different now. When I was in the A-team, it was a couple of laps of the field, a game of touch and pass and then the old heads would go for a few beers and a chat. I remember the Saints gym under the stand. Local community centres have better gyms than we used to have! The game going full time and moving to summer has changed everything.

There was added pressure on Cunningham to make his rugby career work – he became a father at 17, to dayghter Shannah.

“It was hard,” he recalls. “Very hard. I was a motivated person anyway but there’s no better motivation than coming home to a baby daughter at any age. I’m glad it happened and I’ve got two great kids but it could have gone one of two ways. I could have dropped out of rugby and got a 9 to 5 job or make it big in rugby and give them the lifestyle I’ve been able to.”

 

Cunningham made his Saints debut on 24 August 1994 against Warrington in a midweek match in the Stones Bitter Championship. It was their second game of the season after a shock opening-day defeat at Knowsley Road to newly promoted Doncaster, who had a 38-point start at the bookies – that gives you an idea of how erratic that underachieving Saints side was.

“My first-team debut was away at Warrington, up against Bruce McGuire and all those animals! It was a very daunting place to go. You had to go there with a crash helmet on. Within a few minutes of the start, Shane Cooper was knocked out by McGuire – I couldn’t believe it. I was packing down in a scrum with six animals facing me wondering if I’d chosen to play the right sport. It was very scary but I got on with it and had a good game, even though we lost.

“The next game was at Halifax. They had Brendan Hill, who was huge, and Karl Harrison. I was up against the big, old-school type of front rowers and, like I said, it was pretty scary. Props are more athletic now and not as daunting for a young kid to come up against.”

Cunningham faced competition for the hooking role from the long-serving Bernard Dwyer as well as Sean Casey but soon came back into the side after that early-season stint.

“We played Hull at home in the January and I had the game of my life,” he remembers. “I was making breaks, setting all sorts up and from then on I knew what ability had and I knew that it would have to be a very good player to take the shirt off me.”

After a year of first-team action, he took part in the 1995 World Cup and helped the Welsh to a semi-final appearance against England.

“I went over to America in 1993 with Wales and found it difficult being a kid around the stars because I was such a big fan before I turned pro. I travelled all over watching Saints so I’d been cheering or booing all the people I ended up playing with or against. Some of the greats like Jonathan Davies, Paul Moriaty, John Devereux and Dai Young were in that Welsh team and I was so privileged to play alongside them.

“I was on the bench for the Samoa World Cup game that everyone remembers, with Martin Hall starting. The Welsh fans were unbelievable that night and when I got on it was really close and I was praying I wouldn’t do anything wrong. The semi-final against England was also very special. We were underdogs and we took a hell of a lot of supporters up from Wales. It would have been nice to win but I just don’t think we’d have been good enough to threaten in the final.”

Cunningham’s next showpiece game was the 1996 Regal Trophy final in which Saints lost 25-16 to Wigan Huddersfield. Neither side knew it at the time but Saints’s valiant performance signalled a shift of power at the top of the Rugby League tree. With Cunningham and Bobbie Goulding in great form and new signing Paul Newlove on board, Saints’s time was just around the corner.

The League Express match report stated, “Finally Wigan cracked as Keiorn Cunningham drove the ball in from close to the line. Surely it was the wrong option when Edwards and Hall were all over him and Connolly and O’Connor were arriving fast, but from the mass of red and white hoops there emerged a telescopic blue and white arm to plant the ball over the line. That was enough to clinch man of the match for Cunningham – the first hooker to get the award since Blackpool’s Smiler Allen in 1977.”

Cunningham recalls, “I got man of the match in the final and scored a try but I’m still not sure how I got the ball down. It was so disappointing to lose but the game springboarded us into the summer era. We had some really good young players that the club knew would take them into a new era and that’s what happened. Saints had always been the nearly side who were yet to do something. We were only ever the guests at the party and it was time for that to be changed.

“Shaun McRae came in and revolutionised Rugby League in St Helens. He brought in new ideas and new defensive structures and other things that we’d never heard of before. We soaked everything up and put it all into practice.

“He also brought in Derek McVey from Australia who was massive for us up front. Defences were a lot looser back then and I was making breaks for fun off Derek’s passes. Paul Newlove was in great form. All the combinations were working for us in 1996.

Cunningham recognises, however, that captain Goulding was the Saints’ driving force in that glorious, first summer season.

“Bobbie Goulding was outstanding for us. He’s a great fella. I owe him a lot because he took me under his wing as a kid. He directed me well and was a good influence on me. He taught me how to lead players and how to direct the team. I’ll never forget Bobbie for that. He was a great captain but just a bit of a firecracker when he had a drink and that’s what let him down I think. He had St Helens at his feet and the Rugby League world at his feet.”

Saints won the double in 1996, winning a classic Challenge Cup final against Bradford and winning the league by topping the table after 22 matches, in the days before Grand Finals.

“The 1996 Challenge Cup final is my favourite ever final,” says Cunningham. “Wembley was the hallowed turf where only special players played so to get there was amazing. I’d watched Saints there before and I particularly remember being at the 1987 final when they lost to Halifax and Mark Elia could have scored late on. I cried my eyes out after that.

“I remember walking out the day before and the grass was like sponge. I’d never seen grass like it in my life – it was so perfect. It was like someone had gone across it with scissors and a spirit level. It was just perfect and the sponge-like feel is probably why they used to say people got heavy legs at Wembley. It was so daunting walking out even the day before, wondering if you’re ready and if you’re good enough. On the day of the game, the noise was unbelievable when we came out. It was like a bomb had gone off.”

Trailling by 14 points in the second half, Goulding turned the game with three huge bombs which Bulls fullback Nathan Graham couldn’t deal with. Cunningham profitted with a try from the first of those kicks.

“When Bobbie put the first bomb up, I don’t know how I got the ball ahead of Nathan Graham. I think he went up too early and I caught him on the way down. I remember being on the floor with the ball in my hands thinking, “I’ve scored! Then we scored from two more bombs and were in the lead. It was such a special occasion.

“As for Nathan Graham, I think he was on for the Lance Todd trophy because he tore us to pieces in the first half. He was unstoppable but obviously the bombs went against him and that’s all that people remember.”

Saints went on to complete the double by clinching the championship, pipping Wigan to the title with one point to spare.

“We had Terry Matterson to thank for that as much as anybody else,” remembers Cunningham. “He kicked a last-minute touchline conversion against Wigan for London to get a draw and we won the league by that one point.”

 

After such a spectacular season that brought Cunningham his first trophies as a professional, he reveals that he came very close to leaving for the Sydney Roosters.

“My agent phoned me at the end of 1996 to tell me that a new deal with Saints was in place but I decided to hang on for the Great Britain tour to New Zealand because a lot of the Aussie clubs who had made me offers were going to fly over to New Zealand to talk to me. In the end myself and my girlfriend, Lynette, now my wife, didn’t want to go abroad with our daughter so we stayed. But I came very close to joining the Roosters who had made me a great offer.

“I don’t regret not going but I was very close to it.”

After retaining the Challenge Cup in 1997 with another win over the Bulls, Saints entered a two-year barren spell which included humiliation in the ill-fated World Club Challenge, in which the 12 Super League clubs were shown up to be light years behind their Australian counterparts.

“We had a mental block where we weren’t used to winning things. We won the Cup again in 1997 and a lot of us, including myself, put the cue on the rack for the year. Bradford went on to win the league and 1998 wasn’t the best of years for us either.

“Shaun McRae had probably taken us as far as he could as well. New stuff was coming into the game and maybe we were all taking things for granted, including the coaching staff.”

Even after signing his extension, Cunningham was still chased by Australian clubs and admitted in a television interview after yet another Saints defeat in the World Club Challenge that he hoped his good form was putting himself in the shop window.

“I was looking to sign for an Australian club to be honest,” admits Cunningham. “There was a lot of interest in me because I was playing well and I’d done well the year before.

“But a lot of the things I said in the media in 1997 were the words of an immature kid. I was putting myself in the shop window in Australia and I was tempted to look for a move because things weren’t going well at Saints. In 1998 I thought the same thing but it soon turned round at Saints.”

It’s not hard to find the reason for the St Helens transformation in 1999 according to Cunningham – their new coach was Ellery Hanley, one of the game’s finest ever players.

“A few new players came in but Ellery was the big thing for the club. What he brought into the club was brilliant. He wasn’t the most technically brilliant coach but as a motivator he could get players to run through brick walls for him. We wanted to play for him and win for him. To be honest he had the battle won by just walking through the door at Saints and being Ellery Hanley.”

Sean Long told Rugby League World last year about the club’s win at Leeds in 1999 – the game which turned their year, close to the business end of their season. According to Long, Hanley’s team talk was the best he’d ever heard, making the hairs stand up on the back of his neck. Cunningham likens it to a religious experience.

“It was unbelievable and to this day I’ve never experienced anything like it,” said Cunningham. “He got us into a circle with him in the middle and turned the lights off. God knows how he knew where everyone was – you couldn’t even see your own hand in front of your face. He said your name, said something to you and grabbed your hand at the same time. It was like a religious experience!

“He couldn’t have seen anything but he grabbed my hand and made me feel superhuman. He knew what he was doing – he was a great motivator.”

The need for Hanley to motivate his players was never greater than in the lead-up to the 1999 Grand Final. Saints were hammered at Odsal 40-4 in the play-offs but met them again in the final, winning a gripping, tight affair, 8-6.

“That was a great win and it was the game when Leon [Pryce] had a try disallowed by the video ref,” remembers Cunningham. “But every time he brings it up, or the Chris Joynt voluntary tackle three years later, I just get my ring out of the box and tell him to have a look.”

But Hanley’s reign was soon over.

“There had been some very colourful dinners regarding sponsors and directors before he was sacked with Ellery doing speeches that were very critical of the board. Ellery was all for the players and I understood completely where he was coming from but I couldn’t understand why he was trying to put it across that way. The stuff Ellery was coming out in those speeches with was frightening. I was just glad he was my friend and not my enemy.”

“Ellery came from clubs like Wigan and Leeds, the front-runners in Rugby League on and off the field. Everything surrounding the players were second to none at those clubs but while we were great on the pitch, things could have been better away from it. Ellery was just trying to sort that out. But now, with Eamonn [McManus] in charge, the club is run so well. Before that my little lad may as well have run the club.”

Ian Millward was the next coach, being tempted to Knowsley Road from Leigh before leading Saints to another Grand Final triumph. That remains the only time a team has retained the Super League title, a remarkable feat given that three clubs have won every Super League bar one.

“There’s always an element of doubt when a coach comes in who has been coaching a lower-division side. He brought in a new style with some new plays and we beat Hull in his first game. We came off the pitch thinking, ‘this guy knows what he’s talking about’ and he took us to another level. Ian was trying to revolutionise the game, coming up with new plays. I don’t think he used to sleep because he was up all night watching games. Technically, tactically and game wise he was second to none.

“2000 was a big year for us. Ian knew that myself, Sean and Tommy [Martyn] could play and he gave us a free reign. We all had very good years. Tommy was a great player – someone you’d watch in training and be jealous of with the amounts of skill he had. It was sad when he left Saints.”

Cunningham represented Wales in the 2000 World Cup where they reached another semi-final, performing heroically against Australia. It was during the tournament that rugby union came calling. At one point Cunningham had actually decided to make the switch.

“During the World Cup myself and Iestyn were invited to watch Cardiff play. We went along as guests of the club and next thing we knew we were being introduced to the crowd, which we didn’t expect at all. Graham Henry [the then Wales rugby union coach] asked me later in the bar if I’d like to come and play rugby [union].

“A bit later I also met Clive Woodward, the England coach who, bizarrely, wanted to meet me at Manchester airport. You couldn’t find a busier place! So we were sat there in the middle of this terminal having a coffee with people recognising us and pointing at us. It seemed like a PR act so I decided that if I was going to go to union, it would be with Wales and not England.

“After I met the Swansea chairman I decided that I was going. I agreed terms with Swansea and with the Welsh rugby union and had the two contracts in my house to be signed. I had a meeting with the chairman and one of the directors from St Helens who were trying to persuade me to go because Swansea had offered them half a million pounds and they needed the money.

“Saints told me they weren’t going to try and keep me by increasing my contract but I still didn’t want to be backed into a corner because they needed the money.

“I was due down at the Millennium Stadium at a press conference on the Tuesday, by which time Iestyn had already signed. The Rugby League then got involved and offered me the ‘Club GB’ thing which offered me more money to stay. To be honest I’d have stayed anyway but it was nice to get the extra money.

“So I tore the union contracts up and announced that I was staying the day before I was due to do the press conference in Cardiff. Ultimately I couldn’t see myself down there playing for Swansea in front of just a few hundred people even if playing internationals at the Millennium Stadium was a big attraction.

“I know I’m good at Rugby League but I didn’t know if I’d have been good at rugby union and I wasn’t prepared to start all over again at something. I didn’t know where I’d have played – I heard inside centre. I don’t regret not going and I wasn’t keen on playing the club rugby but I’ve watched Wales win the Grand Slam in union and wondered what it would have been like.”

 

 

In 2002, Saints reached both major finals, surprisingly losing the Challenge Cup final to Wigan at Murrayfield before beating Bradford by a late drop goal in a wonderful Grand Final.

“We were just complacent in that Cup Final,” says Cunningham. “We were playing really well and Wigan were poor so it looked like we just had to turn up and win but that’s not how it works. It was a good kick up the arse which we needed – but we didn’t need it to happen in a Challenge Cup final! I suppose experiencing defeat helps you appreciate winning more but it was hard to swallow especially considering it was Wigan.

“To beat them in the Challenge Cup final would have been so special because it was so long since Saints had beaten them in the final. I remembered watching the infamous 27-0 final in 1989 on a portable telly on a fishing boat! That was painful but at least we beat them in the 2004 final.

“But we made up for it in the Grand Final that year when we beat Bradford. There were times in that game when I thought it had gone for us but we came back and it was perfectly set up for the fairytale ending when Sean kicked the drop goal.

“The main feeling when it went over was relief because we just didn’t want to lose another final. When you’re part of a successful side, you’re expected to win so when you win finals you always feel the relief first.”

After Long’s drop goal came probably the most controversial Grand Final moment of them all – Chris Joynt’s voluntary tackle. With Saints winding down the clock the veteran Saints skipper fell to the turf without being touched with the bemused Bulls players pleading with referee Russell Smith to award a penalty which would have seen Paul Deacon kick for the title.

“Chris Joynt fell over accidentally,” laughs Cunningham. “Well, OK, we wanted to kill the game off and Joynty obviously thought he was a lot closer to the defensive line than he was. It was very worrying but it would have been a very brave decision by the referee to award it.

“James Lowes was going absolutely ballistic, screaming at Russell Smith and pointing at the screen. I was laughing on the inside and Jimmy never lives it down, I make sure of that everytime I see him.”

The next three years saw only one of the major trophies make it to Knowsley Road – the 2004 Challenge Cup, won in convincing fashion against Wigan in Cardiff. Later that season Long and Martin Gleeson received hefty bans for betting against their own team when Millward controversially fielded a team of reserves the week before the Cup Final. At the start of the following season, Millward was sensationally sacked having fallen out with the Saints board.

“We always said you could make a good soap opera out of St Helens and it’s only in the recent years since Daniel’s been here that there’s been some calm and stability in the club,” laughs Cunningham. “There are no scandals anymore!

“Sean rang me up and told me a journalist had come to his door asking him all sorts of questions about the betting and that there was a photographer snapping away from his car!

The next day the picture of Long being doorstepped made the back page of the Daily Mail and all hell broke loose.

“The whole thing was farcical though and a lot of blame has to be attached to Millward,” is Cunningham’s blunt assessment. “He lost the respect of some of the senior players over that and I don’t think he ever got it back.

“Some of us didn’t like how he was treating the younger players at the club. If you were an established player then he was OK with you but some of the younger players and those whose careers were on the line didn’t have it so good with him.

“Even though he did a lot for me early in my career and taught me things I still use now, I was ready for a new coach.”

That new coach was Anderson who had coached New Zealand Warriors to the 2002 Grand Final, a wonderful achievement given the Warriors had been in complete crisis just two years earlier.

“Daniel is a really good friend of mine and someone who I look up to and respect, as a fella and coach,” says Cunningham. “I’m also looking forward to spending time with Mick Potter to see how he does things. Daniel will be a hard act to follow but Mick seems like a good bloke.”

Anderson produced a League-and-Cup double in his first full season and the club regained the Cup by beating Catalans at Wembley last year. But Leeds were too good for them at Old Trafford as they whipped Saints 33-6 – the Knowsley Roaders only Grand Final defeat to date.

“Leeds were awesome in the Grand Final and it hurt massively,” offers Cunningham. “I’ve never played against a team and been in awe of them, not at any time. But Leeds were big, strong, fast and skilful. Defensively, they were perfect. They had it right with all the big-name players coming into form at the right time and Jamie Peacock was just outstanding as were the halfbacks. There was never a moment in the final when I thought we would win.

“I’ve learned that it’s the worst game to lose. At least if you lose the Challenge Cup final, you can play the following week but if you lose then Grand Final you’ve got a long time to wait until your next game. You’re only as good as your last game in Rugby League and you have to wake up every morning and face your demons.

“How did I cope with the loss? I’ve got a good, solid base here. I’ve been with my wife since I was 14 and we’re best friends. I don’t drink and I don’t go out – my wife and kids are my life. I rely on her a lot and I called on her a lot last year after that Grand Final because the game means so much to me. But you have to get through the bad times.”

2008 has seen Saints and Leeds emerge as the top two sides in the competition and, barring a major shock, the only realistic winners of the Super League. Leeds flew out of the traps playing some wonderful football, doubtlessly buoyed by how they ended 2007 while Saints got their act together in April and have capitalised on a Leeds slump to clinch the Minor Premiership. The form of both sides at times, particularly Saints, has been breathtaking.

“Leeds were in the World Club Challenge and the make-up of your season changes because you have to peak early,” Cunningham points out. “They played some great stuff early on but they hit a sticky patch. They will come good, though. They’ll be a different team again come the play-offs.

“This year we’ve proved that we’re a good side after we started it like a bag of crap but we just don’t want to fall at the last hurdle again. I’d rather not make the final at all than lose one.”

 

While praise for Cunningham’s St Helens deeds come from all angles, he has come in for criticism for electing, at times, not to play for Great Britain in order to have much needed end-of-season surgery. Such withdrawals saw Cunningham miss international competitions in 1997, 2001, 2003 and 2004 while his international retirement after the mid-season Test against the Kiwis in 2006 saw him miss out on the 2006 Tri-Nations tour and the 2007 series against New Zealand. He could even play in the World Cup for England this year, but is adamant that he won’t if he is asked.

“The one regret I do have is that I didn’t make more of a push for Great Britain,” he says. “I was more interested in getting ready for the start of St Helens’s next season. But I don’t know if I’d have made any difference to the competitions that Great Britain played in,” he says modestly.

“2005 was my last Tri-Nations – I had a good series – and I played in the mid-season Test in 2006 against the Kiwis at Knowsley Road. I’m glad I played in that Tri-Nations because it exorcised a few demons for me.

“There are some injuries that you just have to get sorted. Surgeons must love us rugby players at the end of the season because they get so much work out of us. There are always players in any club who need end-of-season surgery and that’s the time it’s got to be done. Clubs aren’t going to let you have your groins done halfway through the year just so you can play for Great Britain. And you’ve got to be completely fit and totally on your game to play against Australia and New Zealand. I was happy for someone like Terry Newton to come into the Great Britain side for me when I wasn’t fully fit because I didn’t want to let anyone down by playing when not 100% fit.

“But now I look back and think the best thing I did was retire from internationals in 2006 because it means I’m still confident that I can go around again next year. We play a lot more games than the NRL and if you throw in a World Club Challenge and the Challenge Cup, it’s so many games. Something has to give.”

I ask Cunningham what his answer would be if Tony Smith asked him to play for England this year.

“I couldn’t do it,” he states emphatically. “I turned Brian Noble down in 2006 for the Tri-Nations and he’s a good friend. If I wouldn’t do it for Nobby, I wouldn’t do it for anyone else.

“But we’ve got a very good squad of 24 or 26 who are very, very good players. We’re no longer reliant on just one or two top players. I really think England have a genuine chance of winning the World Cup.”

 

With the end of Cunningham’s career approaching – he still wants at least another year at Saints – he admits that he worries about the future when all the knocks that he has received in his 14-year professional career could take their toll.

“My knees and shoulders aren’t good,” he admits. “My knees are shot to pieces and I sleep with my head under the pillow with my arms at the same level otherwise I wouldn’t be able to move my shoulders in the morning. I could get my AC joints done one day and maybe the artificial cartilage transplants for my knees but I’d be on crutches for ages so I don’t think I will.

“I see guys like Kel Coslett and other players from the past who have had knee and hip replacements and I think that I’ve got all that to come. But surgical procedures are a lot more professional now. Whatever, though, I’m going to be knackered when I’m older. It’s just a question of how knackered. But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

“As for now I’ve dropped about ten kilos or 22 pounds which has helped me injury wise. I’m a lot more mobile now.”

But Cunningham is quick to express his worries that the health of the player is not high enough up on the governing body’s priorities.

“The game is getting a lot right now – we’re turning a profit over every year and the international game is getting better but is it to the detriment of the players?,” he asks. “Players always suffer for the game to get better. Players are soon forgotten because there’ll always be another Keiron Cunningham around the corner. We do what the governing body says.”

Talking of Cunningham’s body, last year it was announced that he had topped a poll to have a statue of himself erected in St Helens. The poll included Saints greats Alex Murphy, Tom van Vollenhoven, Vince Karalius, Chris Joynt as well as teammate Paul Wellens. Understandably, Cunningham was enraptured by the honour.

“Coming top of that list in Rugby League World was a massive honour. As for the statue, it’s just incredible because. The kids were over the moon with it. They’re are at an age where they’re proud of me and that’s good because one day I’ll be a big, fat, old, grumpy git who they think is a bit of an idiot!

“I didn’t think I was in with a shout of winning the vote because of Tom van Vollenhoven and Alex Murphy. I was sure one of those two would win it. I was away when it came out, on holiday in America. My wife’s sister rang to tell us about the vote. My wife and I were having a coffee and the kids were on the internet, voting away for me! Click, click click… I told them that only one vote would register but there’s a big Cunningham clan in St Helens so if they all had a vote then maybe it all added up.

“I got measured up at the end of last year and the statue will be one and a half times life size. The photos were very invasive and personal with me in just my boxer shorts but she had to get it right. I was trying to influence her into making my biceps bigger and my waistline slightly smaller!

“It will be amazing to see it because, in my eyes, I’m just Keiron Cunningham from the council estate up the road and I’m a humble person. To get praise of that magnitude is unbelievable.”

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