What happened to Super League’s greatest number nine?

Throughout Super League history there has been a handful of players who not only lived and breathed their one club, but nailed down a place alongside Super League’s all-time greats. Just look at the likes of Andy Farrell for Wigan and Kevin Sinfield for Leeds.

Where they are right now is well documented, but what about the St Helens equivalent? What about Kerion Cunningham?

Cunningham is a certified Super League legend and arguably the greatest hooker in the competition’s history with the only alternative being former teammate James Roby. Few men have dominated the league as well as Cunningham did but considering the success of his rugby league family perhaps it was always inevitable that he would reach the heights he did.

The future St Helens skipper was born just months after his older brother Eddie Cunningham won the Challenge Cup with the Saints at Wembley against Widnes. Both Eddie and brother Tommy would leave behind a St Helens legacy which Kerion would one day pick up and run with.

At just 17 years of age, he signed a contract with the club and quickly became renowned for his running style and ability to poach tries at ease which he did at Wembley at the age of 19 as St Helens ended Wigan’s stranglehold on the Challenge Cup in 1996. Later that year he’d be named in the Super League Dream Team after helping the club to the first ever Super League title.

In 1997 he claimed his second Challenge Cup before leading St Helens to back-to-back Grand Final successes in 1999 and 2000 as he helped his home town team cement themselves as the first dominant force of Super League.

Another Super League title followed in 2002 as Cunningham played in arguably the greatest Grand Final ever. A Sean Long drop goal ensured Cunningham’s 100% record on the grandest stage remained in tact as St Helens won their third Grand Final from three attempts.

During this time, he continued to feature for Great Britain on the international stage but bizarrely things never really worked out for him in a Lions shirt. He did however impress when playing for Wales in the 2000 World Cup.

Nonetheless, his persistently stunning performances at club level naturally attracted a lot of attention. A queue of NRL clubs formed to attempt to pry the most destructive hooker Super League has ever seen away from Knowsley Road whilst Wales Rugby Union looked to secure his services promising the kind of international success that rugby league had failed to deliver him. However, he remained loyal to St Helens and it would certainly be worth it if 2006 was anything to go by.

That year saw Cunningham lead one of Super League’s greatest ever teams to a historic treble which soon became the quadruple thanks to World Club Challenge success against Brisbane in 2007. Another Challenge Cup and League Leaders’ Shield followed that season as Saints looked on course to produce an unprecedented double treble.

They went into the 2007 Grand Final as heavy favourites against Leeds given their perfect record at Old Trafford. However, he and the Saints found themselves played off the park by a brilliant Leeds side who claimed the trophy. This would become an all too familiar situation for Cunningham in the twilight of his career.

2008 followed a similar pattern as St Helens completed two thirds of the treble before Leeds again denied them Grand Final glory. 2009 was even worse and proved to be St Helens’ first trophyless season since 2003 as they became the first team to lose three consecutive Grand Finals.

The following season was fittingly Cunningham’s last. As Knowsley Road was laid to rest so was Cunningham’s career. That season would finish with one last date with destiny at Old Trafford as he led his St Helens side out against Wigan in the Grand Final – an occasion Cunningham had once dominated but had since turned against him.

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be a fairytale finish for the St Helens number nine as a red-hot Wigan blew the Saints away early on before wrapping up a 22-10 win over their rivals.

However, Cunningham remained tied to the club. Soon enough he would be immortalised outside their new stadium and even helped St Helens to a third-place finish alongside Mike Rush in 2012 following the departure of Royce Simmons.

Then, having seen the success of Nathan Brown in the St Helens hotseat, Cunningham took on the role of Head Coach hoping to defend the title Brown had won. With Sean Long alongside him, fans dreamed of the success the duo could bring as coaches having dominated as players. However, two successive Super League semi-final defeats in 2015 and 2016 and a slow start to the 2017 season saw him relieved of his duties and replaced by Justin Holbrook who went on to deliver St Helens’ seventh Super League title.

Cunningham spent 24 years associated with the club and is rightly loved by all at St Helens. Interestingly, he now works outside the realm of rugby league perhaps to not taint his Saints legacy by joining another club. He and old friend Mark Daverin run an electrical wholesale business called MK Electrical Supplies.

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