In a year of trials and tribulations, Keiron Cunningham has remained a defiant leader for St Helens, even in the most uncertain of times.
Whether he was taking the brunt of a backlash following a disappointing defeat, or the man issuing a rallying cry ahead of a pivotal match, St Helens’ head coach has maintained complete faith in a Saints side that too often fell short of expectations earlier in the season.
However, Cunningham’s trust in his squad has now been vindicated, as they prepare to face Warrington in a match that will lead them to Old Trafford and the Grand Final if victorious.
Cunningham, one of Britain’s most illustrious players in a generation, boasts a playing career most could only dream of having. However, he would be willing to give all of that up to taste success at the end of a year full of adversity.
“I’ve had a couple of groundbreaking events in my legacy as a human being,” he told TotalRL.
“Getting married and the birth of my children goes alongside playing in some great finals, but I’d give away all of those finals, all of those medals, to do something good with this club.
“I feel like the boys have been through so much adversity in the last 12 months, so to come through the other side of it, we all believe we deserve to be there.”
Despite their current position as outsiders in the race for Old Trafford, it has been anything but an easy ride for those donning the red vee this season.
A slow start to the year coupled with their disappointing exit in the Challenge Cup saw Saints heavily criticised, while Cunningham’s suitability for the job split opinion on the Langtree Park terraces.
That, for the time being at least, has come to a halt, following their impressive end to the season.
For Cunningham, that difficult period has ultimately been the making of a side that has gone from top-four outsiders to legitimate Grand Final hopefuls.
“I never said anything about this group that I didn’t think was true,” said Cunningham.
“It’s just come to fruition now. We were a better team than what we were showing. The weight of expectancy weighs quite heavy at big clubs, and there are no bigger than Saints. Throw in anxiety and it can make a great player an ordinary one.
“That was when it was my job as a coach to turn that around and make them believe in themselves, it was a tough ask but I knew it wasn’t far away. It was just a matter of time and I’m glad the group listened to everything I told them. They’ve come back a better and stronger group. It has forged the group a little bit.
“When I look at them in training, I see how they respond to things, put in those little extra efforts for each other, and I can see how much it means to them having gone through everything together. I see how much they hurt when they lose games, and how much it means to them, that’s how I knew it was a good group.”
From an individual standpoint, Cunningham’s second-year as a head coach has brought more challenges than most could have expected, but, just like he did on the field, he has overcome the adversity in an admirable way.
“When you are passionate and care about the club, it hurts. For me, that is the making of you as a coach or a player, that’s what makes leaders. That’s what we’ve done in our group this year. As much as it hurts, it’s coming through the other side that has driven me an made me a leader of the club.
“We’ve proved a lot of people wrong, and the taste of that is quite sweet. I knew we could do it, but seeing it happen and come to fruition is satisfying.”