Cunningham snubs the code breakers

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The Independent Online

Keiron Cunningham yesterday followed his heart rather than his wallet in rejecting a lucrative offer to join Iestyn Harris in the steady exodus of the game's leading talent to rugby union. St Helens rejected an increased bid of £500,000 from Swansea after the 24-year-old Great Britain hooker pledged his future to the Super League champions.

The surprise announcement at Knowsley Road yesterday was described by the Rugby Football League chairman, Sir Rodney Walker, as "a shot in the arm" for the code. The Welsh Rugby Union was hoping to parade Cunningham alongside the Leeds Rhinos captain Harris, who is Cardiff-bound, at the Millennium Stadium today and the player admitted he had come close to switching codes.

"When I realise how close I came to leaving the game, it scared me," he said. "I realised then it would have been for the wrong reasons. It would have been financial. It would have been easy to take the money but I took advice from different people and the one big thing that stuck in my mind was that someone told me to follow my heart and that's what I have done."

Cunningham, who captained Wales in last week's 42-33 defeat to England at Wrexham, has signed a two-year extension to his St Helens contract that takes him to the end of 2005.

The Welsh Rugby Union admitted it was "extremely disappointed" with Cunningham's decision. "We put together the best possible package for Keiron and we were keen to give him the chance to play rugby union at the highest level," said the WRU chairman, Glanmor Griffiths. "His decision is a big disappointment for everyone in Wales."

The Wigan centre Paul Johnson is poised to follow the lead set by Cunningham by rejecting a move to Gloucester. The 22-year-old, who is out of contract at the end of the season, told the Wigan Evening Post that he intends to re-sign for the Warriors despite the offer of a lucrative four-year deal from the Zurich Premiership club.

"Gloucester made me a very good offer but I've turned them down," Johnson is quoted as saying. "I know there is more money in union but my heart is in league and with Wigan."