COLUMN: It was time to move on, but Saints fans should remember Cunningham the player

It’s never nice to see a coach lose his job – although in the instance of Keiron Cunningham and St Helens, you had the lingering suspicion the writing was on the wall for some time.

Ultimately, last Friday’s draw with Huddersfield proved to be the final straw for the St Helens board, who decided shortly after that they would sever a 24-year relationship between Cunningham and the club by relieving him of his duties as head coach.

There have been plenty of tributes paid to Cunningham the man – not least by one of his successors, Jamahl Lolesi, in a story elsewhere on this site. I’d echo them too; every time I dealt with him, I found him to be helpful, friendly and on the whole, just a really nice bloke.

But the time was right for Cunningham’s tenure as head coach to come to an end. Saints are a club with exceptionally high standards and, as has been pointed out by Lolesi himself, nobody is meeting them at the moment. The nature of sport dictates it’s easier to get rid of one coach as opposed to 20 players: and something had to change. It’s for the best, and Cunningham will bounce back if he wants to return to coaching: I’m sure of that.

However, St Helens fans of any age and any era shouldn’t remember Cunningham for what has ultimately proven to be a failed two years as head coach of the club he adores (although you could argue that with a few decisions going the other way in last year’s semi-final defeat to Warrington, the Saints would have made it to Old Trafford). They should remember Keiron Cunningham the player, not Keiron Cunningham the coach.

The statue outside the ground says it all in my eyes. Debate will forever rage as to whether he is actually St Helens’ greatest player – some may say Alex Murphy, others may say Kel Coslett. But I was fortunate enough to watch Cunningham in his prime growing up and I always remember thinking I’ve never seen a player of his type before. He’s definitely in the top few, that’s for sure.

One former St Helens player once described him to me as “three positions in one: the skill of a half-back, the power of a forward and the guile of a world-class hooker”. It’s hard to disagree.

His own personal farewell to Knowsley Road, when he fittingly scored the last try at that great old venue, remains one of my personal rugby league highlights – despite being born 70 miles away from the town! I’ve no affiliation to St Helens RFC but there was always something special about watching Cunningham in full flight.

I’m sure when the dust settles on his departure, all St Helens fans will feel the same.

Great players don’t always make great coaches. Time will tell whether Cunningham achieves the latter – but he absolutely has the respect and the career to ensure he falls in the first bracket.

The RFL’s decision to live-stream England’s game against Samoa next month has certainly copped plenty of criticism!

For what it’s worth, I think pretty much everything has been said on the subject: but I’m not against the concept myself. England will be on the BBC a good six or seven times this year – the national football and rugby union sides aren’t on much more than that. The national cricket side aren’t on terrestrial TV at all.

And if reports about broadcasters offering between £5k and £10k are correct – I have no reason to doubt they are – it’s no surprise the RFL opted to go it alone just this once. Live-streaming will become the norm in the coming years, so it’s right to give it a go now in a friendly rather than do it for a competitive, meaningful game like a World Cup fixture.

However, there is one issue I do have – the decision to only allow people who buy Magic Weekend tickets from now until kick-off a free pass to watch it. That’s wrong. It should have been ALL Magic Weekend ticket holders, and ALL ticket holders for the Summer Bash. Leaving out Championship fans is such a basic error to make – and it only reinforces the view some fans have that there is an elitist attitude in rugby league, where only Super League seems to matter.

Sure, the RFL want to see if they can make some money out of this. But at least let Championship fans have a chance to get a free pass too.