Nine months ago, just as he was reinforcing his reputation as the most complete back-three player in the country, the Sale wing Mark Cueto admitted to a feeling of acute discomfort at being confined to the England camp – incarceration of the five-star variety, admittedly, but incarceration all the same – while his club-mates were fighting for their careers at the foot of the Premiership table. "Jobs are on the line and it's a nightmare. There's an element of helplessness. It's a brutal time and it's getting me down," he said.
Heaven alone knows how he will feel this time around, for he now has the Sale captaincy complicating his life. Pete Anglesea, installed as head coach last week after the sacking of the former All Black flanker Mike Brewer – a development accelerated by the intervention of a small handful of senior players – has asked Cueto to lead the side through another relegation scrap, even though Six Nations commitments will keep him away from Edgeley Park between the back end of next month and the middle of March.
Cueto replaces the injury-prone youngster James Gaskell, who may or may not recover from his latest orthopaedic hassles in time to face Saracens in Stockport this weekend. "The first thing I did after taking charge was get the senior players on my side," said Anglesea, a highly popular and effective back-row forward who operated alongside the likes of Cueto and Charlie Hodgson before retiring through injury in 2006.
"Mark's leadership skills will be vital to us," he added. "We'll have someone in place to take over while the Six Nations is on, but we're looking to him to take the club forward with heart and passion."
If Gaskell proves himself sufficiently fit to return to the Sale engine room and two experienced internationals – the outside-half Hodgson and the loose-head prop Andrew Sheridan – also make the cut after missing the 54-point thumping at Leicester earlier this week, the widely respected Cueto will at least find himself in charge of a semi-recognisable side against Saracens in a match marking his 150th appearance for the club.
In Wales, a record rugby crowd is expected at Cardiff City Stadium when the local Blues take on the Swansea-based Ospreys tomorrow afternoon. More than 16,000 tickets have been sold for a Magners League contest throwing together two of the top-five sides in the tournament and could, in the event of a convincing home victory, tilt the balance of the Welsh challenge from west to east.
Not that David Young, the Cardiff coach, is expecting anything other than a severe test. Smarting after the Heineken Cup setbacks against Northampton, he described Ospreys as "one of the strongest sides in Europe", singling out their scrum, powered by Adam Jones, as a serious threat.Reuse content