St Helens announced club legend Keiron Cunningham as their new head coach last week, following the departure of Nathan Brown, who will head home to his native Australia.
League Express reporter Aaron Bower sat down for an exclusive one-on-one chat with Cunningham following the appointment, discussing everything from transfers to coaching staff, as well as his own feelings about taking on the role of head coach.
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AB Keiron, congratulations. As a St Helens man you must be very proud to be named the new head coach of the club.
KC I’m very proud, yes – and humbled, too. It feels a little bit surreal at the moment, and it all feels like a dream. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and I’ve worked really hard behind the scenes to get here.
AB So do you feel like you’ve earned your stripes as an assistant and are ready for this shot?
KC I do, yes. There’s always a fear of the unknown and being in the firing line, but that’s how I was as a player – I love a challenge and playing against adversity.
AB Had Nathan stayed, would you have been willing to continue as a No.2?
KC Yes, absolutely! I’d just agreed a deal to be an assistant for two more years so if Nathan had stayed, I’d have loved to continue. In truth I’ll miss the dynamic that he and I have; we’re really good friends. I wish Nathan all the best though, because he will coach in the NRL, there’s no doubt about that.
AB How much did you speak to Nathan about taking the job?
KC Quite a bit; I knew he was leaving a while ago, and we knew where each of us were at. I understand why he’s chosen to go back home, but he can walk away from this job with his head held high.
AB What sort of legacy has Nathan left for the long-term?
KC He’s virtually rebuilt the team, let’s be honest. He taught me a lot of things about bringing standards back to the club, and he’s been a big part of the culture of this club getting back on its feet. We’re back to where we should be, and that’s thanks to Nathan.
AB With Jonny Lomax, Luke Walsh and Jon Wilkin returning, it will be like three new signings for you in 2015, won’t it?
KC You actually forget about these lads; because you remember what a super job the lads who stepped in did in their place. Getting those three back out there will be huge for the club and massive for the squad – then throw Atelea Vea and Travis Burns into the mix, and I’m a very excited coach with what I’m going to be working with.
AB How much influence did you have on recruitment for 2015?
KC Massive; Atelea was someone the whole coaching staff had discussions about and we all agreed on him. But with Travis, we were looking in another direction, then when Nathan knew he was going home, I said I wanted Travis Burns in my squad. Nathan told me to envisage the situation of me being head coach, and I wanted Travis as my stand-off in 2015. I feel like Travis is my signing, in all fairness.
AB Is your recruitment complete for next season in that case?
KC Yeah I think so. You’d always like to bring more in, but salary cap rules in our game dictate that we can’t. If anything happens and I do free up some money then I’d probably be in the market looking for someone.
AB Is the biggest positive for you the number of young players in the squad?
KC Hugely! It’s something I pride myself on, because I have a big affiliation with the Academy, so to see their progression from coming in as kids to playing in the first team is really exciting. There are more of them who people haven’t heard of too, so watch this space in the coming months and years.
AB What about your coaching setup, Keiron? Is that decided upon?
KC Jamahl Lolesi is still here, and he’ll remain as an assistant to me. I’ll probably get another coach in, maybe someone from the junior setup who understands our system well. I’ll be looking to recruit from within; I’ve got a couple in mind who that could be, and I just need to sit down with them and have a discussion.
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AB There’s an ever-increasing role for Paul Wellens on and off the field too, isn’t there?
KC Yeah, of course. I’ve done the transition and I understand that completely. Paul’s got a lot to offer this club, and at some point Paul Wellens will be working with me – I don’t think there’s any secret there. I’ll help Paul this year, and if he decides he wants to go round again we’ll get him involved with the coaching side of things gradually. I’m grooming him slowly and getting him ready for when he finishes his playing career.
AB Finally Keiron, how special will it be when you coach St Helens in a game for the first time?
KC Well, I don’t think there are many coaches who have a statue outside the ground, which is nice! To be coaching this great team and having that statue is incredible. Things like the statue are hopefully my legacy, but I try live in the here and now, and I’m still pinching myself that I’m head coach of St Helens. I’m absolutely buzzing for the challenge that lies ahead.