The last time Mark Cueto played an important Heineken Cup pool match away from home, against the furious men of Munster in that Hell's Corner of the union world popularly known as Thomond Park, he found himself being dragged into the crowd by unspecified numbers of locals who took exception to the England wing engaging in a frank exchange of views with his opposite number. Alarming? Just a little. The worst moment of his career? Not by a very long chalk. Compared with the events of last month, that night in Limerick was a laugh a minute.
Sale may have found themselves on the rough end of a 30-pointer that knocked a hitherto promising campaign clean off its foundations, but at least Cueto learned a thing or two about the extreme passions generated by European rugby.
"The thing that excites me most is playing in unfamiliar surroundings and learning to cope with new pressures," he said this week. "Not that I expected to end up on the terraces. One moment, I was doing a little pushing and shoving with the Munster bloke; the next, I felt myself being pulled into a bloody great group of Irishmen. What can you do? You can't take a swing at them, can you?" Sébastien Chabal might have done. "He's different," Cueto replied, pondering with some glee the Cantona-esque possibilities of that great French ox of a colleague mixing it with the paying public.
Tomorrow, there will be a fresh challenge to savour - a fixture with Stade Français, the glitziest club in France with their Parisian swagger and flower-power shirts, in front of 40,000-plus spectators at the wonderfully atmospheric Parc des Princes. It should be all-consuming, yet the hangover from England's dismal autumn international series continues to throb away inside Cueto's head. Three defeats out of four, a sacked head coach, a captain whose chances of leading his country again border on the microscopic, rows and ructions at the Rugby Football Union... Things could be worse, but not by much.
To add injury to insult, two of Cueto's most influential clubmates - the outside-half Charlie Hodgson and the loose-head prop Andrew Sheridan - suffered serious injuries during the first match of the squared series with the Springboks and will be lucky to play again this season. Another big hitter, the Scotland captain Jason White, also crocked himself on international duty, as did the Samoan centre Elvis Seveali'i. One way or another, the autumn Tests ripped filthy great holes in the fabric of the Sale squad while Sale were minding their own business doing other things. It has been an evil few weeks.
Let's start with the sufferings of Hodgson, Sheridan et al - major contributors to the side that Philippe Saint-André guided to the Guinness Premiership title last season.
"A real downer," said Cueto, who had just returned to the England side after injury hassles of his own and was on the pitch at Twickenham when the trauma reached its height. "Andrew looked bad straight away, although no one knew how bad. Charlie? I hadn't a clue how serious an injury he'd picked up, but when I got off the pitch and the reality hit home it was a case of 'Oh no, not him'. Jason had already gone, of course, so it was grim news all round. We have strong forward back-up at Sale, so it's just about possible to cover for props and flankers. Replacing an outside-half of Charlie's class is more of an issue. It's such a pivotal position, and he's such an outstanding manager of a game.
"Stade Français in Paris is quite a challenge. Let's face it, Stade Français anywhere is quite a challenge, and we have them at home next weekend. These are huge games for us, matches that could make or break our season, so to lose such people at this point is a massive blow. Still, if anyone can come up with a few ideas of how we might beat them, it's Philippe. He has a deep understanding of the way they play, and as we also have a big French influence amongst the playing squad, we shouldn't find ourselves being taken by surprise." And England in general? What does Cueto make of the state of the nation after eight defeats in nine matches and the inevitable toxic fall-out that cost Andy Robinson his job? It was Robinson, after all, who awarded him a belated first cap after months and years of bewildering rejection by Sir Clive Woodward.
"I certainly think the players should take a degree - a large degree - of responsibility," he responded. "Rugby is getting like football, isn't it? In this day and age, it always seems to be the coach who has his head on the line. If a team fails to perform, he's the one who goes - pretty harsh, especially when blatant individual errors on the field lead directly to defeats, as they have done in our case.
"Andy spoke a good deal about the errors we kept on making in the 10 minutes before half-time, and in the final game, we made a conscious effort to avoid making the mistakes we'd made in the previous three matches. I scored a try late in that first half, and as we regrouped for the re-start we actually said to each other: 'There are five or six minutes until the interval: let's tighten it up, get ourselves some territory and play it by the book.' We didn't do any of those things, and as a result, we put ourselves under pressure.
"Even then, we had 40 minutes to win a game of rugby, but while we controlled things for long periods, we failed to come away with the points we needed. There was nothing in it, to be honest. I could easily have scored a second try, but as I took Andy Goode's high kick in the South African in-goal area, the ball became dislodged as I was on my way down. I pride myself on not dropping those, but an arm or a leg got in there somewhere and the five points disappeared. It was that close. There again, close isn't close enough. We lost, and people are suffering the consequences."
Cueto remains convinced that England have what it takes to make a decent fist of the forthcoming Six Nations Championship and, beyond that, a World Cup in France that propels them headlong into the Springbok sphere of influence. "Even during the worst days of the autumn series, we weren't moping around the hotel with our heads down muttering 'Oh God' under our breath," he said. "There is any amount of quality in the Test squad, and while that makes it all the more frustrating that we're not delivering the results expected of us, it's also reassuring to think we have the players to make a difference, and make it quickly."
He is, however, concerned at the rigours and ravages of a domestic season that routinely leaves him and his kind in bits. Cueto may be the best wing in England, by some distance in terms of work-rate and try-scoring instinct, but he is sufficiently new to the top-level game to have been bitterly disappointed at missing last summer's two-Test trip to Australia, even though the tourists' chances of winning either fixture were as remote as the planet Pluto.
"It's such a difficult thing, finding the right balance," he conceded. "As a player, you want to play. It's what you do. When you're high on confidence, as I was last season, the last thing you feel you need is a break. My heart wanted me to go to Australia, but my head told me something different - that I needed a good summer's rest. It was a tough decision to make, but I feel I did the right thing staying home. It boils down to a simple question: are we playing too much? I don't like saying it, but the answer is yes.
"Of course, it was annoying to have given myself a full close-season's preparation and then cop an injury. I'm still working my way back from that, to be honest with you. Ankles are a nightmare for someone in my position, because a wing depends on his footwork and his pace. I know what it is now to be frustrated, to force things that aren't on, to lose myself in that vicious circle of trying to do too much too quickly. I'm not quite right yet, but I'm getting there."
England need him to be "there" from the start of the Six Nations Championship, which begins in early February. More immediately, Sale need him "there" tomorrow. Both teams have their fair share of difficulties right now, but if their most dependable finisher can show the best of himself over the coming weeks and months, all may not be lost.Reuse content