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Rugby League

Cunningham makes his final play for sainthood

The St Helens hooker tells Dave Hadfield how he hopes to set up a perfect farewell at Wembley with a win over Leeds today

The big games are running out for Keiron Cunningham and the St Helens hooker can think of no better way of putting a seal on his career than with one last day out at Wembley.

Cunningham, who captains Saints against Leeds in today's Challenge Cup semi-final at Huddersfield, is retiring at the end of the season. Unlike previous years, there will be no last-minute change of heart.

"It's the end of one chapter and I'm looking forward to the start of another," he says of his switch to the club's coaching staff next season. "I'm going to have to move on and start at the bottom learning a new role.

"Fortunately, I've not much ego about me. I'm a pretty humble person anyway and I know that some of the best players make the lousiest coaches."

Not many beginners in coaching, however, will eventually turn up at their place of work to find a statue of themselves outside. That will be the case with Cunningham, because when Saints' supporters were asked to vote for the club's all-time great to be commemorated outside their new stadium they chose him. That is no small compliment when you consider that they had such players as Alex Murphy and Tom van Vollenhoven to choose from.

Cunningham described that sort of legendary status in his home-town as "a bit of a bonus", but it is a clue as to how he is regarded - not just by fans, but by his team-mates.

"I grew up watching Keiron and idolising him," says his fellow hooker, the apprentice to his sorcerer, James Roby. "Then it was a pleasure and a privilege to play alongside him and the likes of Sean Long and Paul Sculthorpe. Anything I achieve in the game is down to him."

Cunningham's own achievements in the game make for lengthy reading, including as they do seven Cup-winners' medals and five victorious Super League Grand Finals. He makes no apologies, though, for the admission that, for him, Wembley has always been the thing.

"I'm that generation for which the Challenge Cup was always the ultimate – and always will be for me," he says. "It's a one-off occasion, knock-out football and that sense of anticipation as all the work you've put in comes together."

The best day of all in the long Cunningham career was when he captained Saints to victory over the Catalan Dragons at Wembley three years ago. "It meant so much to captain the club I supported before I played and to hold that Cup up with my team-mates. There aren't many things in life give you that sort of feeling." Apart from landing a really big fish, since Cunningham's other great passion is angling.

Before he can hook one more major trophy, however, Saints have to negotiate the considerable barrier of Leeds at the Galpharm this afternoon. That will bring him into direct opposition against a close friend.

"Danny Buderus has been a good mate for a long time. I know him because of a long, long friendship with Andrew Johns and he's one of those players where you can honestly say that he's a good fellow off the field as well."

If the battle between Cunningham and Buderus promises to be a highlight, then Saints probably have the edge in being able to use Roby at hooker as well. Cunningham is confident that, with such an accomplished understudy, he is leaving the No 9 shirt in safe hands.

People have talked about Cunningham as a Man of Steel contender in his final season, but he says that Roby has a better claim. "He's been fantastic this year. I think he's played better than when he won it three years ago. He's been starting more games and playing more roles.

"I don't think I'm a candidate – maybe at the start of the season – but I've missed too many games."

Cunningham's latest injury, which he succinctly describes as "a hole in my toe", ruined his chances of making 500 appearances for the club, threatened to keep him out of the semi-final and even to finish his playing career on a note of frustration.

However, he made a successful return last weekend in a victory over Warrington that showed that Saints' production line of talented young players is as healthy as ever. "It's been good for a few years. Daniel Anderson brought a lot of young players in before Mick Potter and, if you show faith in them, they will reward you.

"Jamie Foster's a good kid, full of confidence and he's got a massive future in the game," he says of Saints' 19-year-old match-winner against the Wolves. "But all the kids have aimed up when we have put them under pressure."

For Cunningham, at the other end of his playing career, there are no thoughts of putting his feet up, with or without fishing rod. "Everybody at the club seems to have a different idea of what I can be doing for them," he says. "I'll have to go and see the chairman and get a few extra hours put in the day."

Saints win at Warrington has reminded everyone that they remain experts at reaching the Super League Grand Final, so that could actually prove to be his last game.

Whatever happens in the play-offs, however, Wembley looms as the most suitable grand finale.

"He's won there just a ridiculous number of times," says Roby. "That would be the ideal way to send him off."