One of Ulster’s finest servants in the professional era announced his retirement from the sport several weeks ago due to a series of persistent injuries.
The manner of this announcement was very much in keeping with the man himself. Quiet, reserved, and self-deprecating, few would argue against the statement that Bryn Cunningham has been the most consistent performer in an Ulster shirt over the last decade.
My first contact with Bryn was over 20 years ago and far removed from a rugby pitch. It was, in fact, on Court Six in the Co. Antrim Hardcourt tennis tournament in Portrush, which was one of the best weeks in the tennis calendar.
While there are only two days between our birthdays, unfortunately they are seven years apart, and at 18 years of age I found myself pitted in an epic battle against a baby-faced 11-year-old whose racquet was almost as big as him.
Before I go any further I must state that I retained what little credibility I had by winning 7-5 7-5 but, so rapid was Bryn’s development, that I know were I to have played Bryn the following year he would have stuffed me.
Cunningham was a precociously talented schoolboy sportsman — the proverbial “Sport Billy”. Whether football, squash, tennis, cricket, he was a star amongst his peers, and the biggest question seemed to be what sport he would ultimately choose to excel in.
What was even more striking was that, unlike many top underage players, his racquet did not get tossed around the court and he didn’t stoop to cheating to rescue or win a match.
Even at that early stage he was a role-model — testament to his own qualities and solid parenting — and this approach has not changed one bit since.
For years Bryn was Ulster’s Mr. Dependable. That label might suggest some sort of dull connotation, but that would be a crass mistake, as any quality coach will tell you that you need someone like that in a team. The guy who never lets you down, who you know will deliver when the stakes are high.
Technically, Ulster’s ex-fullback possessed a mastery of the basic requirements of a fullback — safe under the high ball, solid as a last line of defence and excellent positional play.
It sounds simple, but to perform consistently in all weathers and under considerable pressure takes a terrific eye for a ball, enormous composure and, more than often than not, buckets of raw nerve and courage.
In fact, I do Bryn an injustice by using the word ‘safe’ — he was as good as anyone in the game under a high ball and on so many occasions secured the ball when it almost didn’t seem natural with the rain and wind combining to create a savage cocktail of inclement conditions.
Because Bryn went about his business so quietly and modestly, he was hugely under-estimated and at times slightly taken for granted.
At various stages of his career, respective coaches brought in foreign players overtly to take his shirt, but in every case, Bryn reasserted his place in the team through his skills and consistent delivery.
Disappointingly, Ireland honours eluded the Ulsterman, and
how ironic it is that the player who guarded that Irish number 15 shirt most was Girvan Dempsey. The Leinster player and Bryn were almost mirror images of each other.
The best fullbacks are rocks, and had Bryn been playing in a backline with BOD, D’Arcy, Hickie and Horgan, I have no doubt that some of Girvan’s 82 caps would have ended up with Ulster’s own piece of granite.
Despite the elusive green jersey, a European Cup, Celtic Cup and Magners League title will provide decent compensation. Bryn gave everything, worked as hard as he could and achieved an enormous amount.
The loss to tennis, squash, football and cricket was unquestionably rugby’s gain and a player who won 152 caps for his province can reflect in retirement that he has the respect of those he played with and against.
At the end of the day, money and medals aside, that is all that really counts.
As Ulster Rugby is currently finding, Bryn is a hard man to replace. His retirement may have come without any clanging bells or clanging cymbals, but his quiet exit very much befits the player and individual. Ulster’s most consistent performer did not clamour for attention but delivered every time. Many could learn from this approach.