6th December 2010, 13:11
Alfie and Keiron named in top five personalities
Gareth Thomas' impact on his entry into rugby league in 2010 was recognised this week when he was named as one of five personalities of the year in the new Gillette Rugby
Gareth Thomas' impact on his entry into rugby league in 2010 was recognised this week when he was named as one of five personalities of the year in the new Gillette Rugby League Yearbook published by League Publications Ltd.
The veteran former British Lions threequarter made only 11 Super League appearances in 2010 because of injury but his signing for the Crusaders raised the profile of the fledgling Welsh club and he ended the year on a high by leading Wales to victory in the European Cup in France.
Thomas has been singled out by the Gillette Rugby League Yearbook as one of the five individuals judged to have made the biggest impact on the European and world game in 2010. They also included Welsh international Keiron Cunningham who hung up his boots at the end of the season.
Crusaders and Wales coach Iestyn Harris was delighted to hear about the inclusion of the two Welshmen.
"Keiron has had a fantastic career," he said. "His dedication over the years to St Helens has certainly helped his inclusion and he did well to lead them to this year's Super League Grand Final.
"Gareth is an up and coming player in Rugby League termss as he's just at the start of his career in this code. Captaining the Welsh side has emulated his progression in the game and that's probably helped his inclusion in the Rugby League personalities of the year."
New Zealand captain Benji Marshall, the 2010 Golden Boot winner, Huddersfield's England scrum-half Luke Robinson and Wigan and Ireland points machine Pat Richards are the other players of the year.
The 2010-11 Gillette Rugby League Yearbook, published on Friday in paperback (£16.99), is the 15th annual produced by League Publications Ltd and is filling the void created by the demise the old Rothmans in 1990.
It includes the records for each club for the first time along with statistics from every match, including the Four Nations Series, throwing up a series of illuminating facts such as that champions Wigan were the most penalised team in Super League XV.
"2010 was year of incident and controversy," said contributing editor Tim Butcher. "England couldn't perform what would have been a miracle in the Four Nations but the blooding of some young talented players gave everybody involved with the game great hope for the future.
"But what about Wales? If anybody had their money on them beating France to take a place in next year's Gillette Four Nations they deserve a rich return. What a fantastic achievement by the Welsh Rugby League and coach Iestyn Harris."
Here are the full reports of what the new Yearbook says about both players...
No player's profile was as high as that of former rugby union player Gareth Thomas in 2010, and he only became a Rugby League player in March of that year. As the most-capped Wales player in rugby union history, the player known as Alfie gave a Crusaders team assembled at the last minute by coach Brian Noble a face instantly recognisable by the Welsh public.
In December 2009 Thomas had announced publicly he was gay and with it came widespread recognition outside sport. He was voted top of the 'Pink List' in 2010, ranking the 101 most influential gay people in the UK and he received Stonewall's 'Hero of the Year' award in October 2010.
He made his Crusaders debut in round seven in a televised home game against Catalans Dragons on 19 March, a dour 14-6 win, and it was hardly a dream debut for Thomas. Taking the ball up in the first set, he was met with a solid hit from David Ferriol. Shaken, Thomas fumbled the ball as he tried to play it, and clearly struggled with the requirements of his new game from then on. On the half-hour mark, Jamal Fakir hit Thomas with another hard tackle and the new bloke was led groggily from the pitch, not returning that night.
Thomas only played eleven Super League games, with a modest return of two tries, scoring his first League try in Crusaders' 20-10 away victory against Wakefield Trinity in round 11.
His most headline-grabbing contribution came in his second game, at Castleford when he was subject to homophobic taunting by a small section of the crowd. Later in the year, in June, Thomas hailed the Rugby Football League for sending out "an amazing message" by fining the Castleford club £40,000.
In round 17, he limped off just before half-time of the 44-20 win at Bradford with a groin injury and in his comeback on 4 July he suffered a recurrence in a 30-10 home defeat by Warrington and was sidelined for the rest of the domestic season.
Despite the injury setbacks, he took up the option of another one-year contract in August. If his early efforts in club Rugby League met with mixed results, Thomas's season finished with a bang. He recovered in time to become a dual-code international when he represented Wales in a friendly against Italy at the Racecourse Ground on 6 October, scoring their only try, although Italy went on to win 13-6.
He scored again the following Sunday in Wales' 60-22 European Cup win against Scotland in Glasgow. And when Lee Briers was sidelined with an injury after the 31-30 win against Ireland, Thomas was appointed captain by coach Iestyn Harris for the last game of the tournament - a winner-takes-all showdown with France in Albi.
Thomas scored a try, helping Wales to a 12-11 win to secure both the Alitalia European Cup and a spot in the 2011 Rugby League Four Nations. It was a significant step in the rehabilitation of Welsh Rugby League.
Keiron Cunningham brought an end to a remarkable Rugby League career in 2010, though there was no fairytale ending as his St Helens side fell at the the last hurdle for the fourth consecutive season. Wigan's 22-10 triumph over St Helens at Old Trafford denied Cunningham the perfect finish, but he left an indelible mark on the club he had represented for 17 years and on the game of Rugby League.
A seventeen-year-old Cunningham made his debut 24 August 1994, in the days before Super League, in a defeat at Warrington. During his marvellous career, St Helens have been the most successful club in Super League, enjoying three periods of domination - the double-winning side of 1996; the one that spanned the turn of the century; and the one that won the Super League title and Challenge Cup in 2006, 2007 and 2008.
Cunningham was the common thread between those eras, making 496 appearances for Saints, and scoring 175 tries - an impressive strike-rate for a hooker/dummy-half. A double winner in 1996 and 2006, Cunningham played in all St Helens' biggest days and won five Championships and seven Challenge Cups in total.
He had already achieved everything in the domestic game when the Welsh RU tried to sign him in 2001, desperate for a high-profile player to help lift their game out of the doldrums. With huge money on offer, Cunningham decided to stick with Rugby League.
Cunningham's 15 Great Britain caps could have been many more had it not been for injury and his decisions not to be considered for some end-of-season series. He made his last Great Britain appearance in the mid-season Test against New Zealand in 2006, fittingly at Knowsley Road.
In Super League XV, at the age of 33, he remained one of the most dangerous players in Super League, with his strength and speed from dummy-half, and consistent ability to bounce out of tackles. He was as strong as a prop and as wily as a halfback, the archetypal Super League player.
The year 2010 was also St Helens' last at Knowsley Road, and in the last game at Saints' home since 1890 - a 42-22 Qualifying semi-final win over Huddersfield Giants on the last weekend of September - there was only one man who could score the last try. With six minutes remaining, Cunningham forced his way over from dummy-half in trademark style, three weeks after scoring the final regular-season try on the famous old ground against Castleford in round 27.
When a poll was taken amongst St Helens supporters to discover which of their heroes they wanted to be cast as a statue in the town, Cunningham beat the likes of legends Tom van Vollenhoven and Alex Murphy. It was a measure of the esteem with which Keiron Cunningham will be remembered, in St Helens and beyond.