Rugby league fights to keep Cunningham

Predatory moves by union have brought a swift response. Dave Hadfield reports on plans to tempt players to stay
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The Independent Online

Keiron Cunningham will become the first player to be kept in rugby league by money raised by the governing body, if secret plans for a ground-breaking sponsorship deal come to fruition.

Cunningham is due to play for Wales against England at Wrexham on Tuesday and fears have been growing that the game could be the final appearance in representative rugby league for him, as well as for Iestyn Harris. The Great Britain hooker has been pursued for months by Swansea, with the backing of the Welsh Rugby Union, who see him as a valuable addition to Graham Henry's international squad.

But while the Rugby Football League are resigned to losing Harris, even if Leeds are not, they intend to fight fire with fire to keep Cunningham, a key man for the series against Australia this autumn and generally recognised as the best hooker in the world, by seeking sponsorship from outside sources to bolster his salary from St Helens sufficiently to keep him in the code where he has made his name.

That tactic marks a new twist in the battle between the two codes, where support from the RFU has already eased the passage of Jason Robinson and Henry Paul across the great divide to Sale and Gloucester respectively. The chairman of the RFL, Sir Rodney Walker, has complained bitterly about one government-financed sport using that money to weaken another, but the game would have no qualms about using an outside benefactor's cash to fight back. That would, in effect, make Cunningham league's first centrally contracted player, with the implication that, if Saints do not like it, there are other Super League clubs who would be happy to have him.

"The object of the exercise would be that Keiron should remain in rugby league," said the RFL's spokesman, John Huxley, who admitted that, if successful, the same ploy could be used to retain other players targeted by union. The main hope, though, is that by keeping a player of his profile, the drain of talent can be stemmed.

Just like central assistance to union clubs, however, it could raise the hackles of clubs who do not benefit. It could also provide an incentive for league players to make sure that they have an offer from union on the table. A similar situation arose with "loyalty contracts" to keep players out of the clutches of the Australian Rugby League in the mid-Nineties and the game's economics have still not fully recovered.

Cunningham himself has said that he is still in the dark about his future. "My little girl keeps asking me if we're going to live in Wales and all I can tell her is that I don't know," he wrote in his column on this week.

The RFL's feeling is that he will stay if the price is right and they are prepared to break new ground to achieve that objective. A further boost is that another union target, the Wigan and Great Britain full-back, Kris Radlinski, has been talking positively about staying in league.