On the first morning of October last year, Shaun Lunt got out of bed and set about his daily rituals and preparation that had prefaced game day for him across his professional career. His match in the afternoon was somewhat more loaded however; he would be playing for Hull KR in the Million Pound Game, the RFL’s make-or-break, fourth-versus-fifth clash that caps off the Qualifiers group of the Super 8s. He didn’t expect to end the day at the lowest point of his professional career; unemployed, distraught and wrecked by a golden-point 18-19 loss to fellow Super League rivals Salford Red Devils.
“I didn’t even contemplate the idea of us going down,” he candidly admits, over four months on, as the 2017 season of summer rugby in the northern hemisphere gets underway. “It never crossed my mind that we might get relegated, it really didn’t. Personally, I felt like I had a very good game in that match. But with four minutes to go when you’re leading in that position…” He pauses, and a flicker of wry resignation crosses his expression. “If you can’t hold onto that winning margin at that point, then you don’t deserve to win the game.”
He speaks the words with such conviction that his sincerity is doubtless. Mantality meets Shaun at a Starbucks in Mirfield, near his home; dressed in sweats and a grey t-shirt with the moniker Pokémon Trainer emblazoned on the breast, he looks comfortable, relaxed, a little bit worn from his first game of the season two days prior against Bradford. He slips into an easy camaraderie with the deftness of a man content in his choices; he admits to being boyishly excited at getting to drive a minibus full of West Yorkshire-based teammates across to Hull and confides that only three monsters elude him on Pokémon Go (his favourite starter is a Charmander, unsurprisingly given his fiery passion). It is easy to see why Tim Sheens has made him his captain for KR’s return to the second tier; he exudes leadership ability through his openness and grounded humility.
“I’m glad it was sorted so quickly,” he admits over a flat white. “I don’t really like to dwell on things; I’m not a patient sort of guy. On the way home from the game, I spoke to Jamie Peacock about the club’s aspirations and plans now we’d gone down. I spoke to Tim Sheens on the Sunday, then JP again on the Monday morning, and signed the deal that evening.” He grins boyishly. “I love the club; I feel at home there, I feel wanted and appreciated, and that can go a long way.”
Shaun is settled at KR now, after a loan spell in 2015 became a permanent contract for last season. Despite a near-seven year stint at Huddersfield Giants, whom he made his Super League debut for in 2009, he went through periods of uncertainty at the club. His then-temporary move to the East Coast was not the first time he was loaned out; he spent the latter half of 2012 at Leeds Rhinos, where he picked up a Grand Final winners medal.
“It’s got to be up there as one of my greatest professional moments,” he acknowledges, a respectful awe colouring his tone. “Just to be able to play with the likes of Kevin Sinfield and Jamie Peacock, these modern era greats of the game. I wasn’t getting a game at Huddersfield, and was feeling pretty down in the dumps; it was a horrid time and I was contemplating why I was still playing rugby league, up to a point. So to suddenly go on loan to Leeds, there was a touch of the fairies about it, something unexpected and magical. It was nuts.”
Was his departure down to an acrimonious relationship with then-coach Nathan Brown? “Not at all. I never fell out with Browny; he’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had. For him to let me go on loan to Leeds, who were potential title rivals; that shows you what a good bloke he is. He helped broker it quickly with Brian McDermott and Leeds. I’ve got to thank him loads for that. Four and a half years on, I’m still pinching myself. Every time, I look at that medal at home, I’m grinning like a young kid. To play at both Wembley and Old Trafford with them, it was unbelievable.”
Life is a two-sided coin however, and it landed the other way four years later, when Shaun found himself lying on the turf of the KC Lightstream Stadium as jubilant Salford fans invaded the pitch in celebration of their great escape. To rub salt into the wound, a sense of déjà vu played across proceedings; KR had been condemned to their sudden death clash by another drop goal victory in the dying seconds a week before, ironically for him at the hands of Huddersfield. One thing he does however is refuse to assign both losses on the boot of an opposition player.
“The formality of playing in the Million Pound Game was an onus upon us that we didn’t want, of course,” comes his tacit acknowledgement of the dubious honour. “But at the end of the day, we got what we deserved in both matches. People turn around so often and tell you that you deserved to win that game. But if you deserve to win that game, you’ve got to do enough to win it. Hundreds of little things happen in a game. That match could have been won fifteen minutes before with a tackle or three plays back with a try.” Does he muse on what might have been otherwise? “Not really. Yeah, I was gutted. But there’s not point feeling sorry for yourself; you’ve just gotta crack on and get on with it.”
How much individual responsibility does he as a player hold himself up to in results like that? “You have to take responsibility on a personal level. This is a team sport, but you owe it to yourself and your mates to put it all on the line. You might be the one who gives away the penalty for the two points, but you might not be the one who misses the tackle to let them score. There’s a lot going on and not all of it is within your control; but as long as you give it a hundred-and-ten percent, you’ve contributed to the team. I hold myself responsible for my actions, so I gave everything I could in those final games; every time I came off the pitch, the tank was empty. I could leave with my head held high and be able to tell myself that I gave it everything I possibly could on the day.”
Telling himself that he put his all into the game against Salford was scant consolation for Shaun at the final whistle however. He’d lost finals, including with KR the year prior – but the failure to retain top flight status was a harder pill to swallow. “It was worse. Definitely worse. It was a hundred times worse. At the end of the day, a Wembley final or an appearance at Old Trafford is an achievement; regardless of the result, getting there is something to be proud of. But there’s no pride in relegation; you’ve just lost your job.”
What was the hardest moment for him? “Walking into the dressing room. When you see these grown men and their families, when you see your own partner and kids, weeping in emotional pain, it hits home sharply. It was surreal; like watching a disaster movie where every little thing that can go wrong befalls the protagonists, and you’re left wondering what the hell is happening. You can’t paper over the cracks with something like this; you don’t always realise how much of themselves people pour into their dreams until you see it slip through their fingers.”
What does he think of the Million Pound Game concept in principle then, much maligned in the aftermath by coaches and players? He shrugs, somewhat frustrated. “It is what it is, isn’t it? It’s our job; we don’t really have a say in how they do it. I think it’s a great concept for the fans to watch. But when you’re on the wrong side of that result, it is one of the worst things ever.” His expression darkens. “In a sense, I do believe we are like puppets in a show sometimes, like a circus, there to please the fans and the higher-ups. I feel that your hands are tied because it’s your job; you’re not allowed to be critical of the system.”
He’s irked by what he sees as unfair online criticism of the team too, something that he acknowledges is to be expected with a career in the spotlight. “If someone throws some shit at you on social media, you’re not allowed to respond because of the professional limitations that come with this,” he comments, with an edge. We may be professional rugby players, but I don’t see us any different to anybody else in the street. You get people who’ll tell you over Twitter that you’re crap, that you’re not worth the money, and they think they’ve got a God-given right to say these things. It’s demoralising, to the team, the backroom staff, the groundsmen and women. People think rugby players are invincible; we’re not.”
Does he accept that web scrutiny is effectively part of the package too in being a professional sportsman? “Oh, a hundred percent. You put yourself on Twitter, and Instagram, and any social media profile, you’re going to get stick if you’re even remotely in the public eye from someone. We open ourselves up to it, sure. But is it morally sound to rage against someone for their profession behind an egg icon? No matter your profession, we all have bad days. But if you’re a plumber and you have a bad day, no-one will be crucifying you on social media on that evening for a leaky tap, because you’re not in the spotlight. I accept that in an exposed professional career, you open yourself up to accountability; but not every action has to be hoisted high and scrutinised. The culture we live in is unfortunately one where an entire story or reputation can be distilled from a single action or moment.”
He’s particularly passionate in his defence of KR’s former Australian contingent, many of whom departed in the aftermath of their drop to the Championship, to some social media acrimony. “It’s an unfair accusation to say they can’t hack it at this level,” he states. “These gues have left their families to come halfway around the world to be able to look after them financially back home. It’s not that they don’t want to play; it’s that they can’t afford to play. Our shelf life as players is finite; you’ve got to get the most out of it whilst you can. I was fortunate that I got sorted quickly; not everyone else has been so lucky.”
Shaun’s on-field challenges meant he has had to balance his professional career with that of his off-field venture, the player profiling network HQ9. the idea of which came during an injury lay-off last season. “I wondered if it would be possible to cut out the middle man in scouting as such,” he explains. “In every process I go through in rugby, there seems to be intermediaries; I thought that something like HQ9 could help remove the additional characters in scouting and give a platform for aspiring players to put themselves in the shop window, no matter where they’re based.”
He is very satisfied with the way HQ9 has progressed over the past year and takes great pride in what it has achieved so far. “We’ve got a plethora of profiles, with a number of kids signed up at clubs or on trials. It’s a great two-way system too; it gives the chance for youngsters to have an equal chance of fulfilling their dream of playing professional rugby and it gives scouts the chance to see players whom otherwise might have been logistically impossible to view. I said at the beginning that even if I just got one person signed up, it had done its job. . When I got the first person contracted, it was a massive achievement for me. I was buzzing. It’s not a business for me to make money; it’s a business to help get new talent out there playing this great game.” And it’s future? “I’d like to leave a legacy with it. I’m hoping to take it global so that when I do come to the end of my playing days, I can take it to the next step. We’ve got big things in place over the coming weeks and months.”
For now however, Shaun has his focus squarely on the upcoming season and his captaincy – a role he is relishing under new boss Tim Sheens, the former Australia coach who guided the Kangaroos to the World Cup title in 2013. “He is unbelievable,” he swiftly responds when asked of his experience so far. “I’ve never met a man like him in rugby league. He’s a great all-round coach; he’s got the man management, he knows the game inside out and he’s so approachable. To have the chance to work with him, it was an opportunity I felt I couldn’t miss out on. I’d had offers to go elsewhere, here and abroad, but after meeting Tim for the first time, I went home to my missus and said that I’d made the right call.”
As the conversation wraps up, it makes a final turn towards a potential ascent back into the top flight, and where that would rank in his career to date. He mulls over his answer as he pulls on his coat, before a warm smile graces his features. “That would mean more than winning a Grand Final, that would mean more than playing in a Challenge Cup match at Wembley, that would mean more than representing my country. To have been relegated with a club, and given the honour of captaining them back to Super League… it would be my greatest achievement as a player and perhaps the greatest achievement of my life.”