Yesterday’s agonising 32-28 semi-final defeat by old foes Leeds Rhinos means Saints have fallen at the penultimate hurdle for the last two years and need to win the Grand Final if they are to avoid a second successive trophy-less season.
Cunningham’s men are level on points with second-placed Warrington Wolves going into their next game against Mick Potter’s future employers Bradford Bulls, but the coach has just five days to pick his players up from their shattering defeat at Huddersfield Giants’ Galpharm Stadium.
Saints led 18-8 at half-time and were also 22-14 and 28-26 in front in a dramatic second half before Leeds stand-off Danny McGuire settled the pulsating encounter with his second try seven minutes from the end.
“It was good to be part of it,” said Cunningham, who managed to put on a brave face after missing the chance to end his Saints career with a ninth cup final appearance.
“It was pretty intense and very nerve-wracking. It was a very hot day so it was tough to get around the field for everyone and defences weren’t on top.
“Neither side got control of it. Leeds just got up at the right time but we still had our chances. Although we had a 10-point cushion, you’re never safe against Leeds.”
Already resigned to being without England scrum half Kyle Eastmond, Saints were dealt a bitter blow before kick-off when his half-back partner Leon Pryce was also ruled out through injury.
The influential stand-off, who by his own admission was playing his best rugby for Saints, picked up a neck injury in training that could yet end his season.
He is to rest for three weeks before undergoing a second scan and, if there is no improvement, he may need an operation.
“It was a big blow losing Leon and we had half-backs who hadn’t run together all week but you deal with adversity,” said Cunningham.
“You just get on with it and I thought we made a real good job of doing that.”
Saints conceded the first try to Ryan Hall but the magnificent Paul Wellens, Cunningham and Francis Meli all hit back with tries before half-time to put their side in control.
They stayed ahead thanks to Matt Gidley’s effort and James Graham’s 70th-minute try looked to have sealed a trip to Wembley before McGuire broke their hearts.
“Everyone is dejected,” admitted Cunningham. “We’ve been building all week for this and everyone was confident.
“But it will be easy to pick ourselves up. There is only one competition left and, if don’t make a crack of this, then our season is over.
“We’re in a good play-off spot and we’ve got three games to cement position in the league.”