Sale stalwart eyes World Cup triumph
Matt Ogborn @mattogborn
Mark Cueto is running out of time. Sale Sharks know that, Martin Johnson knows that and, more importantly, Mark Cueto knows that.
Time waits for no man, particularly in a sport as brutal as rugby union. This autumn’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand represents the last chance for Cueto to lift the William Webb Ellis Cup.
Cueto and England came agonisingly close to glory four years ago, losing 15-6 to South Africa in the final whose outcome could have been different had the television match official not adjudged Cueto to have grazed the touchline in crossing the Springboks’ line.
The shattering disappointment of that defeat in the Stade de France lingers, however, the 31-year-old is bullish about England’s chances this year.
Cueto joined the England training camp earlier than most this summer, a knee injury late in the season affording the Workington native time to attend the occasional publicity jaunt such as the one at Bisham Abbey in late May when The Sport Collective sat down for a candid one-to-one chat with him.
“I think he [Johnson] is fairly certain of his World Cup squad,” Cueto revealed. “I think that is something that comes from being in an environment where he was a player for so long. He had a lot of loyalty and he has brought that to England.
“That instils a bit of confidence as well. You are not always going out there thinking: ‘I’ve got to do something crazy, otherwise I won’t get picked.’”
Cueto has, arguably, been England’s most consistent player over the past 12 months, despite the emergence of starlets such as Chris Ashton, Ben Foden and Ben Youngs.
The young tyros breathing new life into the ageing limbs of wily veterans such as Cueto could conceivably give England the best chance to upset the southern hemisphere sides in New Zealand.
Ashton is the name on everyone’s lips. One thing is for sure, wing play in the union code will never be the same again. The rugby league convert has infused elements of the 13-man game into the 15-man sphere with his style bringing Jason Robinson and Mark Ella to mind.
Cueto is not a clichéd old-school player stubbornly clinging on to the coattails of a dying style of play. He knows full well that Ashton’s league savvy has given his game a new lease of life.
He said: “It is amazing at 30 how you are still learning so much about the game. This kid Ashton turns up 12 months ago and some of his lines were alien to a rugby union player.
“Traditionally as a winger, you have always been expected to trail and try to support on your wing. I have always thought, as the ball is passed along the line, that I should be behind the ball.
“Inevitably, when someone makes a line break, you are 10 metres behind the line and you are getting blocked by the players in front of you so you are struggling to get there.
“Whereas what Ashton does invariably is like a back-rower, he will support almost from an offside position anticipating that line break. If there isn’t a line break, he just falls back.
“If there is a line break, he is there and it’s mad because I’m thinking: ‘Why haven’t I thought of this?’ Things like that, you’re never too old to learn.”
Cueto made his international debut for England back in November 2004 against Canada. Not exactly the quality of opposition to fire the belly; nevertheless, one that got him on the radar.
“The game has evolved so much,” he continued. “When I started, the winger was on the field just to score tries. If he dropped a high ball or missed a tackle, it wasn’t frowned upon that much.
“Whereas now it is just as important for a player to hit a ruck as it is for a prop to finish a two-on-one. Every player from 1 to 15 has got to be able to do everybody’s job and that is something that Clive [Sir Clive Woodward] almost initiated. I am not saying it was every phase, but once in a while.”
Cueto’s love for the game still radiates from his tanned features. He realises deep down that the intense competition for places keeps him on his toes ahead of the World Cup.
Continuity is a crucial element in any successful sporting team, something the avid Manchester United fan believes has helped Johnson overcome a patchy start to his England reign.
“Regardless of how you guys in the press perceive it, there is always competition,” Cueto said. “You can’t play for your country without being under threat from guys beneath you. One bad game and you are dropped.
“But there are times, like at the moment, when it is a little bit more obvious to outsiders of the competition. Like you say, myself, Fodes and Ashy have played several games back to back, which is massive, and that’s true of other combinations in the team at the minute.
“Continuity is something we have all sort of harped on about. You go back to that team in ’03 that won the World Cup. Leading into the tournament, they hardly changed that winning team for a couple of years.
“Obviously, you’ve got to have an element of luck in terms of injuries and people playing well to allow them to achieve that, but that continuity is a massive aspect that people overlook in terms of how important it is to succeed.”
England take on Wales at Twickenham on 6 August with the return fixture at the Millennium Stadium one week later before a trip to Ireland’s Aviva Stadium on 27 August concludes their warm-up schedule.
The Tri-Nations series involving New Zealand, Australia and reigning world champions South Africa kicks off first on Saturday, and it is a competition the England squad will keep a close eye on.
Cueto revealed: “The lads will watch the Tri-Nations. You can’t not do it. You are always keen to watch what teams like that are doing.”
Revealing a fondness for southern hemisphere players such as Sonny Bill Williams, the New Zealand centre, Cueto realises that the slick passing and offloads displayed by such talented players is paramount to England’s game plan.
He said: “It’s one of those things that comes with confidence. When you’ve got guys playing around you like that, it gives you confidence. It’s only 12 months ago that we were getting slated for playing this boring kicking game and you do become a part of your surroundings.
“When Ashy and Fodes came in, they weren’t naive as such but they were fearless and did what they were doing for their clubs – running everything, throwing crazy passes – and it worked.
“Being a part of that, it enthuses you and, suddenly, you finally find the form you haven’t had for a couple of years. And that’s not just in the back three – that’s everywhere. So that’s what it’s all about.”
Aided by his friend and former Sale team-mate Steve Hanley (the only player, incidentally, ahead of him in the all-time Premiership try-scoring list), Cueto ushered eager young competition winners through their paces in torrential rain on the day of the interview.
Much like Hanley, Cueto is a rare breed in modern sport – a one-club player. That’s not to say that his time at Sale has been plain sailing, far from it in recent years.
After tasting European success, albeit it at the second-tier level, in the Parker Pen Cup in 2002 and 2005, the Sharks stalwart enjoyed Premiership success in the 2005/06 season under the guidance of former rugby director Philippe Saint-André.
The team’s much-publicised struggles since then, when they also lost England sensation Robinson and superb club ambassador Hanley to retirement, are not lost on the loyal wing.
He explained: “To put it bluntly, we have had two, maybe three, poor years really off the back of winning the league in ’06 and it has been massively disappointing.
“It was sort of ’09 onwards when Philippe left, and a lot of our world-class players left with him, when the club just didn’t go down the right road, for whatever reason.
“Moving forwards, you just have to look at Steve Diamond [executive director of sport] coming in. The number one priority was to maintain Premiership status and, thankfully, we have done that.
“Everyone is genuinely excited about where we are going. You have just got to look at some of those guys that Dimes has signed.”
Despite losing mercurial fly-half Charlie Hodgson to Saracens, Sale have brought in several battle-hardened players such as England flanker Hendre Fourie and Welsh firebrand Andy Powell to reverse the slide.
Add the experience of new first-team coach Tony Hanks, who brings trophy-winning guile from his spell at Wasps, alongside backroom team members Steve Scott, Pete Anglesea and Nigel Ashley-Jones, and the foundations are firmly in place for a new era.
Cueto added: “We have spent over a quarter of a million quid on our training ground. I would go as far as to say it is one of the best training centres in the league.
“Put all of that together and it is exciting times. Hopefully, next season or, certainly within a year or two or three, we will be back up to where we should and deserve to be.”
It takes a strong man to turn down the lure of bundles of French money being waved in front of players, however Cueto spurned the chance to move across the Channel.
He acknowledged: “I was firmly sure that, if I was going to leave, I would have gone to France. I spent 10 years at Sale and I didn’t want to go to another Premiership club.
“I know it sounds a little bit old-fashioned, but it was my genuine feeling. The timing wasn’t right to go, for me, with the World Cup and everything else.
“As I have shown loyalty towards Sale, they have shown equally as much towards me. If, for whatever reason, my contract hadn’t been up at that time and was up a year later, then who knows what may have happened.
“I was honestly thinking: ‘What am I doing?’ The club was in turmoil, players were leaving and I was worrying. Now, I am as happy as I have ever been.”
Digging deeper into the French game, Cueto revealed that the pot of gold at the end of the Top-14 rainbow may not be as sparkling as people think.
He said: “The contracts that guys have got are not worth the paper they are written on. It is almost old-fashioned in a way over there.
“Without naming names, I’ve got mates in France where one month they suddenly get 10 per cent of their wages deducted because the owner wants a bit of cash back. There is nothing the lads can do about it.
“It is a fantastic league and competition on the face of it but I think, moving forward, the way the Elite Player Squad agreements are set up there is much more of an incentive for guys to stay in England.
“First XVs in England are as good as they are in France. A lot of the top clubs in France, like the Toulons, Stades and Racings, these teams have two international XVs they can put out.
“That’s where the English clubs can’t compete but, like I say, on any given day, English teams are as good as anyone and that has been shown with Quins and Saints this past season.
“I didn’t want to risk moving to France in a potential World Cup year and missing the World Cup, regardless of what you are going to get paid. It was more important for me to play in a World Cup.”
Retirement will always crop up when the twenties turn into thirties for a player in any sport suited to younger, more physically rigorous bodies, and Cueto is quick to address his situation.
He said: “There was always supplementation and information available when you were younger, but you think you are invincible and don’t need it.
“I go through phases with it to get that benefit. Like anything, if you hammer it, you become immune to it. I tend to drop off with my club and really hammer it when I am away with England to get that boost.
“I have got three years on my contract with Sale, at which point I will be slower as a winger in the modern game. It’s whether or not I can keep up!
“It’s amazing because I remember at 25 and 26 thinking I can play for another four or five years and, if I get to 30, I’ve done 10 years and will be happy.
“Whereas now you hear footballers like Ryan Giggs at 37 saying ‘I feel better than I’ve ever felt’ and you think ‘He’s gonna say that’, but genuinely you do.
“You learn your body so well. I’d like to think that I won’t be one of those players who drag it out so that everyone else can see that you’ve past it, but you can’t see it.
“I’ve got a massive year now with the World Cup and who knows what comes after in terms of England. I won’t play in the next World Cup but, then, on a positive slant, I feel as good as I have ever felt.”
Multipower are the official sports nutrition providers to Mark Cueto. For sports nutrition tailored to your individual needs, visit www.multipoweruk.com
If you enjoyed this, then check out Matt’s basketball feature “Evolution of a Big Man”