Cunningham: ‘Dropping Wellens breaks my heart’

Saints head coach Keiron Cunningham
Saints head coach Keiron Cunningham
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Saints coach Keiron Cunningham says it “breaks his heart” to leave long-serving former captain Paul Wellens out of the team.

Wellens, 34, who began his career with his home-town club in 1998 and led them to Grand-Final glory in October, was replaced as captain by Jon Wilkin this season and, although he was named in Cunningham’s 19-man squad for the first two games of Saints’ Super League title defence, he was omitted each time from the finalised line-ups.

And, after impressive wins over Catalans Dragons and Salford, Cunningham is unlikely to find a place in the side for his old team-mate for next Sunday’s World Club Challenge against South Sydney in front of a full house at Langtree Park.

“It will be tough to pick the 17 next week,” Cunningham said. “The one that breaks my heart is Paul Wellens.

“He is one of the greatest players ever to pull on a Saints shirt so to tell him two weeks in a row he isn’t playing, I can see the dejection. He understands the situation, though, and I like that as it shows he cares and he wants to play.”

Cunningham also left out utility back Lance Hohaia, another member of Saints’ Grand-Final winning team, for Thursday’s 52-6 rout of Salford and admits he is unlikely to find a place for Australian scrum-half Luke Walsh against the Rabbitohs.

Walsh has been out since last July with a leg and ankle injuries and his comeback has been delayed by a virus.

The former Penrith Panthers goalkicking half-back is set to resume full training this week but, with his new skipper slotting effortlessly into the playmaking role and youngster Joe Greenwood taking his opportunity to shine in Wilkin’s normal second-row slot, Cunningham will be loathe to make changes for the clash with the Australian champions.

“I have a big decision to make when Luke Walsh comes back,” Cunningham said. “Joe is probably the form back rower in the comp so far and he is in Wilko’s spot.

“It is going to be tough but I like that. Wilko has played in the back row all his career but has adapted to seven - he actually looks like a seven now. He would play anywhere for me and epitomises what this club is about.

“Luke Walsh had a virus this week so his training took a little setback. He will be fully with us next week and we will assess it from there.

“Has he a chance of playing? We’ll see. I have to make sure all boxes are ticked and Luke is ready and willing.

“I’m not going to risk him for one game and, besides, my halves are playing pretty well at the minute so it would be foolish to try and rush someone back.”

Cunningham admits his side has enjoyed the perfect preparation for the visit of Russell Crowe’s South Sydney, who fly into Manchester on Monday afternoon.

“I’m really looking forward to the game as are the players and the whole club,” Cunningham said. “It is tough to play two league games before a big game - one of the biggest events in the town’s history - especially as it is at our own ground.

“It will be the biggest game for some of the players too. The players have done well to secure to wins with that on the horizon.

“It is now back to the drawing board to see what we can throw at Souths.”