Cueto turns Red Devil

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The Independent Online

For Mark Cueto, it is just about as good as it gets – short of making a vital scoring mark in a World Cup final and not having it chalked off by the television match official, perhaps. As a lifelong Manchester United fan, and a regular at home matches for 17 years now, pulling on an England shirt to play at Old Trafford this afternoon will fulfil a dream of fairly theatrical proportions for the Sale Sharks wing.

“It’s unbelievable,” Cueto pondered after taking part in training ahead of this afternoon’s Test match against Argentina. “I’ve been here loads of times watching United. Every time I come it’s always special, no matter where you sit and no matter who they’re playing against. It’s an unbelievable experience.”

It also promises to be quite an experience at Old Trafford this afternoon for the man who will be captaining the South American opposition. Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe might hail from Buenos Aires but for the past three years he has been an adopted Mancunian. In his time as a Sale team-mate of Cueto, the big back-row man has become as beloved a Shark as the totemic Sébastien Chabal. Next month, Lobbe is off to France to join Philippe Saint-André and Jonny Wilkinson at Toulon. But first comes the big goodbye to his home from home, leading out Argentina to face Cueto and England.

“I live just 10 minutes from here, in Sale,” Lobbe said. “I rent a flat from Charlie Hodgson and I have it until Sunday. I’ve been to Old Trafford to watch some games, mainly Champions League. Great place. Great stadium. But to play for Argentina is the biggest thing – wherever I play. I played in the team that beat England in 2006, in Twickenham. It’s great to play in places like that, and in Old Trafford. But if I have a shit game in Old Trafford I won’t be enjoying it.”

Not that there is very much chance of Lobbe turning in a rank performance as the No 8 and stand-in captain of his country. Such have

been the quality and consistency of his play for Sale these past eight months, the 27-year-old flanker-cum-No-8 has been chosen in the Premiership team of the season. “Ah, he’s a fantastic player,” Cueto said. “He’s passionate. He’ll run through a brick wall if you ask him to.”

Or clip your wing, uninvited. “I’ve told Mark I’m going to chase him with the high balls and I’m going to smash him with my elbow,” Lobbe promised, with a twinkle in the eye. Cueto countered: “I’ve said, ‘You can come after me all you want, but you won’t get me with your elbow.’”

Cueto added: “There are a few boys in the England camp trying to make out they’re Liverpool fans, trying to stick in a few negative comments about the pitch and the stadium, but I think deep down everyone’s loving it. You just have to look at the history of the stadium and the team, regardless of who you support. I mean we’re sitting here with George Best behind us on the wall…”

Beyond Cueto’s shoulder was a photograph of the great right-winger and a quote from Pele. “The best player in the world,” it said. “This is what makes it so special,” said the United fan who will be patrolling the right wing for England at Old Trafford today.