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Keiron Cunningham bows out a good loser

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Cunningham's farewell match no fairytale

By Ged Scott
BBC Sport at Old Trafford

One of the game's great winners bowed out at Old Trafford on Saturday night as rugby league's most gracious loser.

Keiron Cunningham's hopes of a dream finale ended as St Helens lost 22-10 to Wigan - their fourth straight Super League Grand Final defeat.

But Cunningham said: "We were beaten by the better side. I can't be bitter. You win gracefully and you lose gracefully.

"It's a pity it didn't end differently but fairytales aren't made in rugby league. They're made in story books."

Proud one-club man Cunningham has always been insistent that, 16 years on from his debut in 1994, Saints' 2010 campaign would be his last in rugby league.

And, a week after exiting his greatest stage, Knowsley Road, as Saints' 120-year-old home prepares for the bulldozer, Cunningham was not the only man to emerge from an almost silent Saints dressing room at Old Trafford on Saturday preparing to move on.

I wanted to leave my name on people's lips. Maybe it's my ego, but I just wanted to be missed next year

Keiron Cunningham

While he will move to Saints' new home as part of the backroom team, it was also coach Mick Potter's final game in charge before joining Bradford.

Prop Bryn Hargreaves will join Potter at Odsal, centre Matt Gidley is returning to Australia, substitute Jake Emmitt is heading for Castleford.

And another hometown boy Matty Smith, who had so dramatically returned for the play-offs from loan at Salford to stand in for the injured Kyle Eastmond, will now go back to The Willows a sadder and wiser man, having also taken on board Cunningham's sentiment that there are no such thing as rugby league fairytales.

"That's the unfortunate thing about rugby league," said Cunningham. "You can't write the script.

"If you could bottle the recipe for winning games, you'd be very rich. But I'm an old stager. I know things like that just don't happen."

Cunningham's almost Herculean efforts in helping Saints to reach his eighth Grand Final - and Saints' fifth in a row - had hinted that he might have one big performance left in the tank.

He had scored tries in each of Saints' last three games to take his career haul to 175 - the last of them proving to be the final one ever scored at Knowsley Road.

Keiron Cunningham
Cunningham was unable to lead Saints to Grand Final glory

But, in his 495th appearance, there were to be no more.

Cunningham went off midway through the first half, by which time Saints were already trailing 16-0, and he was powerless to do anything about it when he came back on after the break.

"What's happened in the last couple of weeks has been fabulous," said Cunningham. "But maybe it was one game too far.

"We just could not get the impetus to go forward. It wasn't us. We just could not get going.

"But we've done that to so many teams in the past and come out with so many trophies.

"And you just have to take your hat off to Wigan. They finished first. They were the best side all year and they deserve the title.

"They're a fantastic side coached by two great coaches. We just weren't good enough on the day, simple as that.

"They were 16-0 up in 20 minutes and you just can't give a team like Wigan a start like that, especially on a stage like this.

"It's fantastic to have a strong Wigan side again. It's good for the game of rugby league to see the trophies spread out."

Now Cunningham has left the playing ranks, he must await what role he will now fulfil under new coach Royce Simmons, who is due to head over from down under from his assistant's role with Wests Tigers.

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And the Saints legend knows that, in so many ways at Knowsley Road, it is the end of an era.

"We've got some great people leaving the club, and moving on to other teams," he said. "And now's the time for me to go too, no question.

"My time was ready. This year, that was always it.

"I spoke to the chairman halfway through the year and said 'No matter what form I'm in, even if we're winning every single game, that will be it, I'm going to finish'.

"There's a sick part of me that's going to miss it.

"It's a nice feeling waking up on a Monday morning feeling a bit sore. It feels like you've done a bit of work. But it's time to move on.

"I remember my debut in 1994 against Warrington as clear as anything and now it's gone in the blink of an eye.

"It's been emotional but every player has got to come to an end some time.

"I've played with some great players who we've lost in the past. And you start to struggle for a few games without them. But they'll get used to playing without me. For next year, they've already got Scott Moore and James Roby, who are two of the best nines in the competition.

If I wasn't playing, I'd have been out there on the terraces on Saturday night and in tears because we'd just lost a cup final

Keiron Cunningham

"I've had so many highs but some lows, too, and I've been lucky enough to come out with a few winners' medals.

"I always said I wanted to go out on a high, to go out with a bang and to be playing well at the end of my career.

"I wanted to leave my name on people's lips. Maybe it's my ego, but I just wanted to be missed next year."

That Cunningham will be missed is already assured, and he hangs up his boots warm in the glow of having no regrets about spending his entire career at Saints.

"I'm a fan of the club," he added. "I never had any ambitions to go anywhere else. Sometimes there were carrots dangled but I love St Helens.

"This has been a dream come true just to pull on the shirt.

"If I wasn't playing, I'd have been out there on the terraces on Saturday night and in tears because we'd just lost a cup final.

"I have to thank everyone who's touched my life, shouted my name and supported me - and those who hated me for driving me on even more.

"This week has been so emotional. I've had players from every club in the league who I didn't even know had my phone number contacting me.

"And I thought 'Wow, I must have made some impact'."



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see also
St Helens 10-22 Wigan
02 Oct 10 |  My Club
No excuse for defeat - Potter
02 Oct 10 |  St Helens
Maguire praises 'special' players
02 Oct 10 |  Wigan
Richards ruled out for six months
03 Oct 10 |  Wigan
Maguire wants new Wigan dynasty
02 Oct 10 |  My Club
Super League Grand Final as it happened
02 Oct 10 |  Rugby League


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