Car's the key as Cueto Mark II motors again

After an injury-plagued run, a new bed and new wheels put Sale's England wing on the road to recovery.
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The Independent Online

Mark Cueto scored a try the other day. Big deal? It was for him. During Sale's impressive victory at Clermont in the opening skirmish of the Heineken Cup, Cueto came off his wing to exploit breaks by Luke McAlister and Rory Lamont and sprinted in from the 22.

"It felt brilliant, absolutely brilliant," he said. "There was relief, joy and excitement. I got quite emotional. It was my first try since 11 February. It plays on your mind."

Once upon a time, Cueto was a most prolific scorer for club and country. A natural and deadly finisher, he did what wings are supposed to do but then ran into a cul-de-sac, from which Cueto Mark II is now emerging.

"For the best part of two years, I had calf and hamstring injuries. One month I'd be fit, the next injured, and so it went on. Speak to anybody in the game and they'll tell you that if you're not playing regularly you'll never find your best form. I began to lose confidence in myself and my body, to such an extent that I worriedabout lasting a training session, let alone a game. At this level it is not a state of mind you want to be in.

"The problem was that nobody could actually say what was wrong with me. I had every scan under the sun and saw every specialist, but I kept breaking down. I became quite desperate. I was trying to do things when I was only 50 per cent fit. I was gradually getting less and less fit without knowing it. It was crazy. When I walked into the medical room the staff would look up at the ceiling and shake their heads."

The medical boys consulted their counterparts at Manchester United and came up with a novel idea – a change of transport. Cueto exchanged his Porsche 911 for an Audi 4 x 4. "I became obsessed by the whole thing. The Porsche had a low seat which put extra strain on my lower back. The driving position in the Audi is higher. I also changed my bed."

Whether any of this had an effect is not clear, but Cueto made the most of a six-week break in the summer and Martin Johnson, the England manager,did him a favour by omitting him from the tour to New Zealand.

"I was almost depressed with rugby and needed to get away from it. I had a week in the sun with my girlfriend, caught up with friends and family and then got to work in the gym, strengthening my legs and back and losing a bit of weight. I hadn't been strong enough and wasn't able to cope with carrying myself.

"Hopefully we've got to the root of the problem. I had an excellent pre-season and Sale have made a great start. I'm fitter than I've been in ages and I feel as if I'm back to my best."

In 24 games for England Cueto scored 13 tries, but is convinced that should read 14. His last appearance was in the World Cup final against South Africa in Paris 12 months ago, when he appeared to score the only try of the match as he dived over in the left-hand corner. It took the video official four minutes to decide that part of Cueto's left foot was in touch.

"I'm asked about it every day," he said. "I can still see the picture. After touching down I walked back and waited, hands on head, for what seemed like an age. From 101 TV angles it looks like a try. Only from one angle is it fifty-fifty, and yet the decision went against us. I'm convinced it was purely down to the size of the occasion. In any other game it would have been awarded. Every week I see similar situationsand tries are given."

Cueto has had only one bit of contact with Johnson, the phone call that told him he was not in the squad for the summer's engagement with the All Blacks. "I felt quite positive when I put the phone down," Cueto said. "I was glad he rang because at least it showed he was thinking about me. He told me to take a rest and he'd see me at the start of the season." The line has gone dead since then.

Cueto, who was a Lion in New Zealand in 2005, didn't get a sniff in last season's Six Nations and has been dropped from the elite squad for the Autumn internationals. He is not even in the Saxons set-up.

"I'm not too concerned," said Cueto, who will be 29 on Boxing Day. "I'm confident that if I stay fit and play well, week in and week out, I'll get another opportunity with England. There's plenty of time. When you're not involved at Test level you can focus completely on your club, and that can be a good thing."

Today Sale play the Heineken Cup champions, Munster, and most eyes in Cheshire won't be on Cueto or Hodgson, or Tait or Peel, but on the Kiwi McAlister, who put in a match-winning performance in France last weekend.

"He's playing out of his skin," Cueto said. "He's also a great guy and we love him being here. He breaks the line, has a massive boot and smashes people in defence. Without a shadow of a doubt Luke's the best overseas signing in the Premiership. This is the strongest squad we've ever had."