Played three, lost three, is Mark Cueto's dismal record at the Millennium Stadium, yet the England wing considers the cauldron of noise and expectation into which he will step this evening to be just about the best place in the world to play international rugby union. "And the locals will have had all day for a few drinks so they'll be well oiled," he says with a smile. "It will be even noisier than usual, and we couldn't ask for a better game to start. The atmosphere will be fantastic."
The atmosphere in the Kings Norton Rugby Club pavilion on the day we meet, by contrast, is muted. Cueto has been helping to train police officers to coach tag rugby for children, in his capacity as a Yazoo RFU Tag Rugby ambassador, no less. It has been a good session, organised with the CVOC (Child Victims of Crime) as a platform for the police to interact with kids. But it has also been relentlessly wet and cold, and somehow the climatic conditions have permeated the clubhouse. An interview with The Independent is possibly the last thing the Sale captain wants to do, when he could be pointing his Bentley back up the M6, and yet he greets me like an old mate, even though we've never met. I've been told by a mutual friend that he is a "top, top man," and that seems about right.
More significantly for England, he has also become, by just about everyone's assessment, a top, top player. The department in which England most excelled during the autumn internationals, at least according to a pretty shrewd judge in Sean Fitzpatrick, was the back three. Cueto, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden were "world-class" said the former New Zealand captain, who does not dish out praise lightly. This evening, under the Cardiff floodlights, they will have to be.
"But the camp's massively positive at the minute," Cueto reports. "After the autumn games we rushed back to our clubs with no time to reflect, but when we did meet up to go over what we did in the autumn, we found an awful lot of positives, even from the games against New Zealand and South Africa [which England lost]. Against New Zealand we probably switched off for seven or eight minutes, and in that time they scored 14 points. That's how good they are. Against the Aussies [a game England won magisterially, 35-18], well, at international level I don't think I've ever been involved in a game like that. It was one of those days when everything seemed to go our way, from the odd decision to the bounce of the ball, in fact we came off having left maybe 12 or 14 points out there."
It was a shame he and his team-mates couldn't carry those unclaimed 12 or 14 points into the South Africa game, which the Springboks won 21-11. "We knew what they would do after their defeat against Scotland the week before," Cueto recalls. "We knew they'd go back to their roots, be direct, and not move the ball around that much. In the physical battle they had the edge on us. But we've been talking for the last 12 months of continually building towards the World Cup, and every time we come together we feel like we're moving forward."
For now, the burning question is whether that forward momentum can yield a Six Nations Championship for England, and with it perhaps a Triple Crown or even a Grand Slam. Cueto does not want to address those latter prospects, which might of course have floated away down the River Taff by midnight tonight, but admits that the tournament is a "huge stepping stone" – always handy when you're negotiating the River Taff – on the way to this autumn's World Cup.
"Hopefully, we can win it," he says. "But the old cliché really is true; we have to take each game as it comes. There's no point thinking about the France game before we play Wales. We just have to win every game, and treat it almost as a knockout."
The blocks in Martin Johnson's rebuilding of England, he adds, are now firmly in place. "Club rugby is different, but the England camp is 24/7, and therefore the environment has to be spot on. I think it is now. Johnno's brought continuity, and when a squad stays together, relationships improve between players, and between players and coaches. In the years I've been involved, we'd have one squad in the autumn and by the Six Nations there'd be 15 or 20 changes. When it's like that, it's difficult to keep things moving forward. But we've had a settled squad for about 18 months now."
Let's talk about personnel, then, and in particular Ashton, his fellow-winger, eight years Cueto's junior, whose try against Australia in November will live long in the collective memory. Was that a score Cueto, with his 31-year-old legs, could have made? He laughs. "I was there with him, haring up on his outside, but fair play, he had enough gas left in the tank. He's a character, a top boy. A lot of these kids have masses of confidence, and there's a fine line between that and arrogance, but it's not arrogance, and that comes from the top. Johnno is the most successful player ever in English rugby, but he doesn't have an ego. He knows when to be serious, when to have a laugh, he treats everyone the same, and that filters through the squad, so that guys with 70 or 80 caps are able to mix with guys with one or two."
Cueto has 45 caps, which makes him practically Kissinger-like as the senior statesman in the back three. "And there are definitely things I can show them from an experience point of view, but by no means do they have nothing to bring to the table for me. They know each other really well from Northampton and I bounce off their enthusiasm, and learn things from both of them. Whether you're a striker in football or a winger in rugby, people say you need an instinct to be in the right place at the right time, but it's skill more than instinct. The reason Ashy's always on the end of that pass is because his anticipation is good and his work rate is incredible."
Cueto is not exactly deficient himself when it comes to work rate; whatever the reason for him not scoring an international try for almost two years, it's not slacking. And of course we would forgive him for never scoring an international try again had his effort in the 2007 World Cup final not been contentiously disallowed.
"I'm still asked about it virtually every day of my life," he says, chuckling. "Even filling my car up. It's unbelievable. But then when you're in it you don't realise how big it is back home. We're nearly four years on, and it's ridiculous how many times it gets mentioned. But I don't get fed up with talking about it." (I suspect he does, he's just too nice to say so). "I still swear blind that in any other game it would have been given. It was just the enormity of occasion that made it different, because there were 101 angles to show it was a try, and only one that showed it was debatable."
Realistically, Cueto – who according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, owes his Spanish surname to a great-grandfather who sailed from Santander 100-odd years ago, and decided to open a fish-and-chip shop in Maryport, Cumbria – only has one more shot at reaching a World Cup final, not that he discerns the slightest waning of his powers.
"I feel as good as I've ever felt, which I know is easy enough to say, but the data backs it up. We wear GPS systems in every training session measuring speed, distance covered, all that stuff. I'm conscious that lots of sportsmen get to my age and say they're as quick and fit as ever, and they say it because they've got to say it, but hand on heart, I am. Yet when I was 26 I thought I'd be doing all right if I was still playing at 30."
The secret, he is happy to divulge, is Darren Campbell. Three years ago Cueto met the former Olympic sprinter, a 4x100 gold medallist in Athens, through a mutual friend. "And we got talking. I was struggling with injuries off the back of the 2007 World Cup, and he said he'd done a bit of coaching and would be excited to work with me. Darren was 32 when he won gold in that relay, and Linford Christie was 32 when he won gold [in 1992], so that in itself says there are a few years left in me, plus my knowledge of the game almost gives me an extra yard."
Before he hooked up with Campbell, Cueto's recurring hamstring injuries were confounding medical science. "Sale put so much money into trying to understand where these injuries were coming from, but they just didn't know why, so we started looking not just at what I was doing in training and the gym, but at lifestyle issues. My bed, the sofa, the car, all that stuff to see if anything was bad for posture. Our training facility is next door to Man United's and the physios talk to each other. It turned out that United had stopped a lot of guys – Ryan Giggs was one – driving low sports cars. I had a Porsche at the time. So I got rid of it. But I would have been prepared to move house if I'd had to.
"Anyway, when I started working with Darren, I was maybe only 60 per cent fit. My acceleration off the mark wasn't there, and that was because I didn't have trust in my own body. Darren got that back. It's not so much technical things with him, it's more about rhythm and efficiency. He's been fantastic for me, and I've got him in with a few guys, like Mathew Tait. He was never really into rugby – football was his big thing – but now he loves it. He Sky-pluses every game."
Through most of his teens, Cueto was never into rugby, either. At Alsager Comprehensive near Stoke he played football, forming a passion for Manchester United. Only when he was 17 did he start playing rugby, but the love for United endures. "I haven't been to a game at Old Trafford since October because it hasn't worked out, but I love it when I go. Every time feels like your first time, particularly Champions League nights. Yeah, I'm big into my football."
Would he, I ask finally, swap his appearance for England in a rugby World Cup final for one in the final of a football World Cup? I expect him to say no, or at least to equivocate. "I'd have to, yeah," he says. "And the 100 grand a week, I'd take that too."
Mark Cueto is a Yazoo RFU Tag Rugby ambassador
Born 26 December 1979, Cumbria
2001- Sale Sharks
151 appearances, 350 points
2002, 05 European Challenge Cup
2006 Guinness Premiership
45 caps, 75 points
* The wing has impressed since his Sale debut against Bristol in 2001. He scored a try in the 2005 Challenge Cup final win and was an integral member of the side that won the Premiership for the first time in 2006. He was made captain last year.
* Cueto made his England debut against Canada in 2004 and scored seven tries in his first eight games. He was part of the 2007 side that made the World Cup final, in which he had a try disallowed, and he has one cap for the British and Irish Lions.Reuse content