Cueto finally called to arms as deadliest finisher in England

The latest flyer off the Sale production line talks about the hard road to his international debut
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The Independent Online

Whisper it quietly in the valleys, but the latest recruit to the England rugby union team might not have made the grade without the persistence of a son of Pontypridd. Mark Cueto, who makes his international debut against Canada at Twickenham on Saturday, had not played rugby throughout his schooldays until a chance appearance in the oval-ball game, at the age of 17, was witnessed by Lindsay Purcell, who played for Pontypridd in the 1970s.

Whisper it quietly in the valleys, but the latest recruit to the England rugby union team might not have made the grade without the persistence of a son of Pontypridd. Mark Cueto, who makes his international debut against Canada at Twickenham on Saturday, had not played rugby throughout his schooldays until a chance appearance in the oval-ball game, at the age of 17, was witnessed by Lindsay Purcell, who played for Pontypridd in the 1970s.

"I was in the sixth form [at Crewe and Alsager College in Cheshire] and someone was organising a friendly with another school," Cueto said on Monday following his call-up to Andy Robinson's team. "He asked me if I fancied giving it a go. I did OK and it all went from there."

Cueto's speed and elusiveness had impressed Purcell, a teacher at the college who was watching the game. "He asked me if I was playing for anyone," Cueto said. "I wasn't, so he wrote letters of recommendation, asking if there was any chance of a trial, to several clubs in the area. Sale invited me to train and I've been playing there ever since."

Purcell clearly has an eye for talent, for Cueto quickly established himself as one of the deadliest finishers in the Zurich Premiership. The 24-year-old wing has been a leading light in Sale's outstanding back division, scoring 39 tries in 71 Premiership appearances since making his debut three years ago.

While there has been intense competition for places on the England wings, Cueto is the man in the right place at the right time. James Simpson-Daniel, for example, would almost certainly have been given his chance but for injury, while Ben Cohen is out of form. A changing of the guard was signalled last month, when Cohen could only watch as Cueto went over for a thrilling score for Sale against Northampton after a 90-metre charge down the World Cup winner's wing.

Cueto, whose great-grandparents emigrated to England from northern Spain, concentrated on football during his schooldays. Although he spent his earliest years in Cumbria in a rugby-dominated environment, he played the round-ball game from the age of five after his family moved south. He played football for South Cheshire Schools alongside Rob Hulse and Kenny Lunt, now professionals with West Bromwich Albion and Crewe Alexandra respectively. Thanks to Purcell's intervention, however, Cueto's focus quickly changed after he started playing regularly for Altrincham Kersal, a junior rugby club, and then for Sale's under-21 team.

Despite his comparatively late arrival, it is a surprise to many that Cueto has not made his international debut before now. His outstanding first season, when he finished as the Premiership's top try scorer, saw him selected for the 2002 summer tour of Argentina, where he impressed most observers with a try-scoring appearance against the host nation's second string. Sir Clive Woodward, however, was clearly not among them.

"On the back of that tour it was pointed out to me that there were a lot of things I needed to work on - getting involved in the game, general skills and mobility, awareness of positions, plus my general all-round play," Cueto said. "I'd only been playing the game a short time. It was my first year in the Premiership and there was a lot to learn. There were still areas of my game that I needed to improve on, as there always will be. In the last two or three seasons, with the help of the Sale coaches and the England coaches, I'd like to think those areas have improved."

Cueto finished his second season as second-leading try scorer in the Premiership (behind his club colleague, Steve Hanley) and Sale's player of the year. He played for the national A team and then had a chance to impress in England's end-of-season showcase game - for which caps were not awarded - against the Barbarians at Twickenham. Although he did not have many chances to impress, Cueto gave a decent account of himself, particularly after a difficult moment in the opening stages when Thomas Castaignède went over for a try.

"I was on the right wing," Cueto recalled. "There was a line break over on the left-hand side and I was chasing back. I think it was Castaignède who kicked the ball on. I was thinking it was going to bounce my way, but it went to my right and into his hands. It was the bounce of the ball that beat me."

Another season then went by without an international chance, but Cueto has impressed everyone with his dedication. "There are times when you're enjoying playing, you think you're playing well, you're scoring tries, you're making the tackles, but you're not getting that much recognition," Cueto said. "The important thing for me was not to think about it too much. You can get too negative and get down about things. Your confidence dips, you start playing badly for your club and then there's no way you'll get back in the national squad."

Saturday promises to be quite a day for Sale, whose free-flowing rugby has been winning points and plaudits. Cueto lines up alongside two club colleagues, Jason Robinson, who has been named captain, Charlie Hodgson, at outside-half plus Andrew Sheridan and Andy Titterrell on the bench.

Andy Robinson has indicated that England, like Sale, will look to play an attacking game. "There's a lot of ability in the backs as well as the forwards," Cueto said. "That's the style of rugby we're looking to play. There are a lot of exciting runners and Andy has given us the backing to have a go."

Cueto recognises the importance of getting himself involved as much as possible. "That's a massive part of my game, as it is for every winger. If you just stay on your wing and look for the ball to come to you it's quite easy for the 80 minutes to pass you by without you doing a lot."

Andy Robinson has been impressed by Cueto's attitude. "He's gone away and worked at his game," he said. "He's the form winger in the Premiership. That's why he deserves his cap. He scores tries. It's the right time for him to have this opportunity."

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