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BBC Sport's Dave Woods
"Cunningham's decision to stay in Rugby League is a huge fillip for the game"
 real 14k

St Helens star Keiron Cunningham
"Rugby League is a sport that I love"
 real 14k

Tuesday, 7 August, 2001, 13:30 GMT 14:30 UK
Cunningham backs league cause
Kieron Cunningham
Cunningham's tries will continue to enliven league
Rugby union might have lured the likes of Jason Robinson, Henry Paul and Iestyn Harris away from league.

But the 15-man game has lost out on what could have been the highest-profile code switch of the lot.

If Keiron Cunningham had decided to accept a 'double-your-money' offer from the Welsh Rugby Union to join Swansea, the damage to league's credibility would have been immense.

  Cunningham factfile
1976: Born 28 October, St Helens, one of 10 children
1993: Signs for Saints from Wigan St Judes on 17th birthday
1995: Makes debut for Wales v France in World Cup
1996: Emulates older brother Eddie, collecting Challenge Cup winners' medal in Saints' 40-32 win over Bradford.
Selected for GB tour to Fiji, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand; plays in all five Tests
1999: Plays for Lions in Tri-Nations Series in Australia; only British player named in World XIII
2000: Plays in four of Wales' five World Cup games, incl semi-final v Australia
2001: Collects 10th Welsh cap and captains the side for the first time in the absence of Iestyn Harris
But the St Helens hooker has bucked a growing trend by resisting the siren song of union's bigs bucks to remain a league player.

By agreeing a contract extension which keeps him at Knowsley Road until 2005, Cunningham has given his club, the Super League and his sport a much-needed boost.

Sale star Robinson has already won acclaim for his performances with England and the Lions, Paul is looking to make an impact with Gloucester and Harris is heading for Cardiff.

Despite league's talk of a bright future, another big-name defection at this point would surely have set alarm bells ringing.

Leeds stars Chev Walker and Kevin Sinfield, Hull's Richard Horne and Bradford's Leon Pryce have all recently signed extended contracts to remain in league.

Valuable time

But to lose a player of Cunningham's stature to the rival code would have been disastrous.

Perhaps one day his commitment will be seen as the filip which saved the 13-man game - or at least bought it valuable time to regroup in the face of union's raids.

One of 10 children, whose eldest brother Eddie is a former Saints international, Cunningham is certainly hero material.

Jason Robinson in action for the Lions
Cunningham has refused to follow Robinson's lead
A local lad, he signed for Saints in 1993, and is rated as the best hooker in the world.

He was the only British star to be named in last year's Rugby League World Cup Tetleys Bitter Dream Team.

Likewise, he was Britain's solitary member of the Rugby League Writers' World XIII in 1999.

A hugely talented player of great strength and pace, Cunningham had scored 71 tries in 193 games prior to this year's Super League campaign.

Cunningham could have been forgiven for seeking a new challenge by switching to union.

Magnificent treble

Still only 24, he has helped St Helens to three Super League titles and a trio of Challenge Cup wins.

This year's 13-6 Challenge Cup triumph over Bradford at Twickenham completed a magnificent treble.

Cunningham and Co had already won the Super League Grand Final last autumn, and in January beat Brisbane 20-18 to lift the World Club Championship.

Kieron Cunningham
Cunningham in Super League action for Saints
The latter triumph was especially sweet after Saints' 44-6 thrashing by Melbourne Storm in last year's WCC showdown.

Cunningham made his international debut for Wales against France in the Centenary World Cup in 1995, appearing as a substitute in all three games as Clive Griffiths' men reach the semi-finals

Last year, he was a key player in Wales's march to the semi-finals of the Lincoln World Cup.

But even he couldn't lift them to a final four victory over eventual winners Australia, although he was named man of the match.

In his most recent international, Cunningham captained Wales for the first time as they pushed England hard in a 42-33 defeat.

Ironically, the man he replaced as skipper in Wrexham was the union-bound Harris.

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