James Cunningham hoping for personal French renaissance at Toulouse Olympique

James Cunningham is hoping for a French renaissance to his Rugby League career at Toulouse Olympique and an end to his injury-hit, club-hopping days.

At only 27, the Hull-born hooker has turned out for six different professional clubs so far (including loans) and he is hoping his switch to the south of France will be the turning point for his promising yet stuttering career.

He was the first target for Sylvain Houles as the TO coach assembled his first-ever top-flight squad: “I have always had my eye on him, he was incredible every time he played against us,” said Houles.

One of four new signings by Super League’s newly-promoted club, all eyes will be on Cunningham to see if he can finally achieve the success that many people have predicted for him.

“I’ve been unlucky,” Cunningham told League Express: “I’ve had a lot of bad injuries, so my first challenge is to make sure my body is in order and injury free, allowing me to play some consistent rugby.

“I want to come here and string a season of solid performances together without breaking for injuries. That’s the only way a player can start to achieve some form and do what they love most about the game.”

Released by home-town club Hull FC in 2015, Cunningham stood out in a four-season stint with London Broncos then switched to the ill-fated Toronto Wolfpack before returning to the UK with Huddersfield Giants last season.

“It’s been eventful,” he said, “Too eventful!

“Just like all players, all I want to do is play every week to the best of my ability.”

Cunningham has had four weeks of pre-season training already and has immediately settled into his new environment but admits to being surprised by one aspect of his time in France.

He said, “Everybody told me that it would be nice and warm when I got it here but it rained non-stop when I landed.

“But I’ve played down here in summer before and I know how hot it can get.”

A fair-skinned ginger-haired boy from Hull will have to take extra precautions as the season progresses in 2022.

Cunningham added, “I used to have to wear Factor 20 sunscreen every time the sun came out back home, even though it was only eight degrees, so summer here is going to be a bit of a challenge.

“But I’m looking forward to it and I’m going to be the first Super League player to make his name wearing a big sombrero for eighty minutes.”

Joking apart, Cunningham believes his new club are deadly serious in their intentions to survive and succeed in Super League.

“I’ve got every confidence that Toulouse will have a big impact next season,” he said.

“I believe in what they are doing here, the potential for this club is massive and I want to be a part of it.

“Like everybody else, I probably expected them to make some big-name signings for Super League but I think it’s better this way.

“I remember when I was at London Broncos and we made the conscious decision not to make too many signings just for the sake of it and we got ten wins out of the season.

“When you’ve got every faith in the players that are already here it pays off and just looking around the dressing room at Toulouse we are well capable of snagging some wins and a mid-table finish next season.

“The coaching staff have helped the new guys fit in quickly. It did help that I knew Matty, Gadwin and Andrew Dixon from playing with them at Toronto, we’ve been through that debacle together so we’ve got a bit of a bond.

“We weren’t together long for the Wolfpack but because of what happened there we got pretty close to each other. I’ve played with Tony Gigot and Guy Armitage before so it has been an easy transition so far.

“The training sessions are very intense but the coaching staff seem to have a lot of faith in the players and how they behave outside of the club environment.”

It isn’t only the wealth of Super League and NRL experience already at the club (plus the latest addition of himself, former Wigan centre Chris Hankinson, winger Matty Russell and prop Gadwin Springer), it is another aspect of the TO squad that has impressed Cunningham most.

He said, “The level of talent among the young French kids at the club is fantastic.

“We’ve got some experienced players here from all over the world but the local lads aren’t out of their depth, if anything, they have been at the forefront of all of the club’s recent success.”
Cunningham has competition for his preferred role at number nine but he is happy to fit in anywhere.

He said, “There are three hookers here, me, Eloi Pelissier and Lloyd White and I really rate these guys so it’s a fierce competition for that position which is good for the team.

“I’ve already spoken to Sylvain and assured him I’d be more than happy to step in at centre, I’ve also played half-back in the past so to be honest I’ll play wherever he wants me to play.

“I just can’t wait to run out at this stadium. I have never played at the Stade Ernest Wallon, I had only played at their old ground when visiting with previous teams.

“We’re training now at the Wallon and the facilities that we share with (French rugby union champions) Stade Toulousain are out of this world.

“Stade have some of the very best players on the planet and they demand the best so I feel very lucky to be a part of it all.

“Toulouse rugby union is the biggest thing in the city, everybody wants to watch it or sponsor it, everyone’s involved.

“If Toulouse Olympique can achieve just a small percentage of that success, it’s going to be massive.

“The biggest surprise for me is how welcoming the other sports have been towards Toulouse Olympique.

“I’ve been at clubs with shared facilities before, London and Huddersfield, but it was only a ground-share, not much of a link between the sports.

“Here you can feel that all of the other sports in the city are pulling for each other and vouching for us and it’s such a refreshing approach.

“Instead of fighting each other the clubs are learning from the different sports and building upon their successes.”

So far so good for Cunningham but already there is another challenge for the boy from East Riding.

He said, “I’ll be honest, I turned up thinking that everybody here would be speaking English and it wasn’t the case at all.

“With Toulouse being so close to Spain I’m not sure what language people are talking, everything is spoken at 100mph. I’m very good at asking for stuff but as soon as they start talking back to me I haven’t got a clue what’s going on so there’s a long way to go for me yet.

“It’s early days yet but I’m loving it. I’m missing family of course already, and a good cup of Yorkshire Tea, but hopefully my wife will be able to come over soon and we’ll see where it goes from there.”

Toulouse Olympique will break from training on December 23rd and resume January 3rd with two pre-season fixtures planned, against a French Federation President’s XIII and Catalans Dragons.

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