There was a moment this week when Mike Ford, the England defence coach, felt driven to describe the back-three unit of Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Mark Cueto as "the best in the world".
It was not something he felt for very long: indeed, he changed his tune quicker than a Lib-Dem leader confronted with his own manifesto. "Perhaps not quite the best... not yet," he said, tacitly acknowledging that the red-rose wide men have just a little way to go before they start running rings round the Australians and the French, let alone the many and varied combinations available to the All Black selectors.
Yet Ford could be forgiven for his initial splurge of enthusiasm, for there is undeniably the whiff of something transformative about the Foden-Ashton-Cueto triumvirate. Until recently, England could be relied upon to fire more blanks than live bullets when it came to their attacking game, and those who joked that the national team were never less dangerous than when in possession of the ball were not a million miles from the truth. Now, with fine tries in Paris and Sydney still fresh in the memory – not to mention Ashton's thrilling score against the Wallabies at Twickenham – the perception is very different.
Those who stubbornly refuse to recognise the improvement point to the fact that Cueto, by some distance the most experienced of the three, has not contributed so much as a single try to his country's cause for 16 matches. How, they ask, can a Test-class wing go quite this long without troubling the scorers? The response is two-pronged. Firstly, England have spent much of the last 30 months in a creative vacuum – hardly the most promising of environments from a finisher's perspective. Secondly, there is a good deal more to modern wing play than hanging around on the touchline, impersonating Rory Underwood.
Rather like Richard Hill, the key figure in the great World Cup-winning back row of 2003, Cueto is a man who makes it possible for others to trip the light fantastic. Hill also protected colleagues from the worst consequences of their own inadequacies, and Cueto has done that too. In the dark and desolate days of the none-too-distant past, when Martin Johnson and his fellow selectors were strapped into their conservative straitjackets and apparently blind to the claims of Foden and Ashton, it was Cueto who held things together at the rear with the security of his tackling, the reliability of his kicking and the intelligence of his positioning. When he moved to full-back at a moment's notice to spare the miscast Ugo Monye further embarrassment against Argentina, his importance to the side was obvious to all.
Even now, he is giving of himself generously, moving from right wing to left so Ashton, infinitely less experienced in the ways of top-level rugby, can perform the role most familiar to him. Cueto would far rather have stayed put, if truth be told, but he has "taken a hit for the team", as the jargon has it.
"Left wing? It's a funny one," said the 30-year-old Cumbrian, who will win his 44th cap against the Springboks at Twickenham this afternoon. "The coaches sold it to me as an experiment, but I knew it was coming when Mike Brewer [the new boss at Sale, where Cueto has played all his professional club rugby] started pushing it early in the season. I can't really argue, because I'm left-footed. I kick with my left, and while I'd like to think I step pretty well off my right foot – I'm a wing, after all – my preference is to step off my left. The fine detail seems to reinforce the coaches' argument, so basically, I've given in and said: 'Oh, all right then.'"
It is no trifling matter, switching wings. David Trick, perhaps the fastest man ever to play for England in any position, has earned himself a fair few bob on the rugby dinner circuit recalling the day the selectors moved him from right to left for a Five Nations match in Dublin, thereby exposing him to the craft and cunning of Ollie Campbell, who tormented him mercilessly with his tactical kicking. That was a more lawless age – had it happened today, Campbell might have been cited for cruelty, and the selectors for stupidity – but it remains the case that the move from No 14 to No 11 is far more difficult than most people assume.
"There are slight changes of emphasis in playing on the left that can add up to something significant if you're not on top of it," Cueto explained. "Defensively speaking, you can find yourself facing an opposing scrum-half sniping off a scrum. Attacking wise, you run different angles, especially when it comes to taking an inside ball. All these things play on your mind when you first swap wings. And it's not as if I can forget about the things I used to do, because the way we're playing now, I might find myself back on the right if that's how a move develops."
Cueto's barren run on the finishing front is one of the more bitter ironies of this sporting age, for every other part of his game is in full flower. If anyone deserved a try against Samoa last week, he did: he made any number of clean breaks, his work rate was off the scale, his enthusiasm infectious. When Matt Banahan intercepted a pass from the scrum-half Kahn Fotuali'i and sent Danny Care scurrying upfield with barely an islander in sight, the long wait appeared to be over. What happened? Care glanced left at Cueto before flicking the scoring pass to Tom Croft on his right.
"Initially, Danny said he didn't hear my shout," Cueto recalled through gritted teeth. "He bloody well did, though, as he eventually admitted. I've looked at it on the tape, naturally, and it seems he made the correct decision. Had he passed to me, I'd have scored in the corner. By passing to Tom, we scored at the sticks. From the coaching point of view, the team's point of view, everyone's point of view, he was absolutely spot on. However..."
All will be forgiven if Cueto finds his way across the Springbok whitewash this afternoon. He knows what it is to put tries past South Africa: he scored on his first Test appearance against them in 2004, and in both meetings in the autumn of 2006, which makes him significantly more successful in terms of this particular opposition than a bloke by the name of Lomu, who, for all his freakish power, drew a career blank. Less happily, he also knows what it is to miss out by millimetres, on the say-so of a television match official. This last incident happened in a rather important match, namely the 2007 World Cup final, and funnily enough, the aforementioned Ford believes the touchdown would have been completed to everyone's satisfaction had Cueto been presented with the chance down the right, rather than the left. A reversal of fortunes today would be very welcome indeed.
Many argue that he will never have a better chance, given the inexperience of a Springbok back-three unit shorn of J P Pietersen and the exhilarating Bryan Habana, but Cueto is turning a deaf ear to this kind of talk. "I've been saying all week, all autumn, that this will be hard," he insisted. "They may be missing some familiar faces, but to play devil's advocate for a moment, how many caps do Ben and Chris have between them? Not many. They may be playing as though they have a huge amount of Test experience behind them, but the reality is different. We've developed a very good understanding very quickly, and that's great. But this will be a challenge for us, definitely."
One last thing, then, on the subject of Ashton's try against the Wallabies. That try, as it has quickly become known. Had the chance of a 95-metre run-in fallen to Cueto instead, would he have been grinning like a Cheshire cat by the time he reached the 22, à la the newcomer from Northampton? "If you knew anything about sprinting," he replied, "you would know that he wasn't grinning at all. He always has that expression on his face when he's running flat out."
Does Cueto have a sprinter's expression? "Yes, I do," he replied. "My expression says: 'Why is it no one ever gives me a scoring pass?'"
Making His Mark
Mark John Cueto
*Born: 26 December 1979, Workington
*Caps: 44 (15 Tries)
*Cueto made his Test debut against Canada at Twickenham in November 2004, scoring two tries in an emphatic 70-0 victory.
*At the 2007 Rugby World Cup, Cueto went over against South Africa in the final, only for the try to be disallowed as a result of his left foot straying into touch before he managed to ground the ball.
*Cueto is one of only 11 players to have scored more than 50 tries in the Premiership.
*Over nine Premiership seasons, he has scored 69 tries in 148 matches, making him the Premiership's second highest try scorer behind Sale's Steve Hanley.
*The 30-year-old has featured in England's last 20 Test matches, but has failed to score a try in the last 16 games. His last touchdown came in the 36-10 victory over France on 15 March last year.
*The Sale winger has scored just two tries for his club side this season. In September, he went over against Harlequins in the Premiership while he last scored on 16 October, in the 56-9 Amlin Challenge Cup victory over Petrarca.
Andres SuarezReuse content