England vs France: Mark Cueto admits surprise at Danny Cipriani's lack of playing time ahead of Six Nations decider

Former England wing Cueto feels that Cipriani now offers more than just just flair after seeing him 'mature' at Sale

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England will head into Saturday’s Six Nations-deciding encounter with France knowing exactly what they need to do to win the title for the first time in four years. They don’t know it yet, but once Wales and Ireland have played their hands in the earlier games against Italy and Scotland respectively, it will most likely come down to points difference if Stuart Lancaster’s side are to win a first title under his guidance ahead of this year’s Rugby World Cup.

If England do need to rack up the points, Lancaster will have a decision to make. Does he stick with George Ford, the fly-half that has matured as the tournament as progressed, or send on replacement Danny Cipriani, the talented No 10 that scored with his very first play in the win over Italy?

Cipriani’s Sale Sharks team-mate Mark Cueto is no stranger to the Six Nations, having featured in six campaigns during his seven-year international career that saw the wing win 56 caps, all of which came from the staring XV.

The 35-year-old admitted his surprise that Cipriani didn’t feature in the 19-9 defeat to Ireland in Dublin three weeks ago, and believes that his reputation as an all-out attacking fly-half that can be susceptible to weak defending no longer applies given his development.

 

“Yeah I am,” Cueto told The Independent when asked if he was puzzled by Cipriani’s lack of playing time for England. “Maybe not so much last weekend [against Scotland]. It was probably the right call considering the game was quite tight but I think certainly the game in Ireland you bring guys on to give them 20 minutes if you’re behind, and a long way behind like we were against Ireland. At 50-60 minutes you’ve got to throw guys on to make a change.

“The game’s lost even though there’s 20 minutes to go, and I think the Ireland game was the one that everyone raised their eyebrows at a little bit.”

Having criticised Lancaster in the past for not giving Cipriani a fair crack of the whip despite his impressive form for Sale, Cueto thinks this is one of the head coach’s weaknesses, in that he decides not to replace players until his hand is forced.

“I think a criticism of Stuart in the past is that, for arguments sake, we’re talking about Cips [Cipriani] and the fly-half position before Owen Farrell got injured last year in the Six Nations,” Cueto added.

“Ford was sat on the bench in a similar situation to what Cips is now and if he sits on the bench for every game he’s getting very little game time. We end up saying ‘well if Owen gets injured, Fordy’s got no experience’ and we’re in exactly the same position now. He [Lancaster] really seems to stick with whoever he picks, particularly in that 10 position.

“He’s [Cipriani] massively important and an integral part of the improvements at Sale over the last 12-18 months and he’s a huge part of that, and a lot of that is down to how he’s matured as a bloke both on and off the field.”

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Cipriani scored with his first play after coming on against Italy

Looking at the wider picture, Cueto believes that England should have enough to see France at Twickenham and score enough points in the process to clinch the Six Nations championship. Yet it’s his use of the word ‘should’ that raises an alarm, an alarm that could be going off in the England camp right now, as a French victory at HQ would be so typical of the ever-unpredictable French.

“My heart is saying that England will win, although I suppose the perception is that it's been quite a poor Six Nations,” he said. “Ultimately, off the back of beat of beating Wales, it was only one bad performance against Ireland and last week was very stop-start, but they're still in the title race effectively and if we were to win against France, dependent on points, we should secure a Six Nations championship which would be huge prior to the World Cup.

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Cueto scored four tries in his first three matches for England in 2004

“My only worry is that France have always got one good game in them, though generally it's not away from home and I think that on form, even though they do always have a game in them, they're not looking likely to pull anything out of the bag.

“But there's always that in the back of your mind against the French so it's a game that I think they'll have to be very way. France are dangerous when they've got nothing to lose and they've certainly got nothing to lose coming to Twickenham, but that sort of mentality can be dangerous, though I'm sure we won't get that complacent.”

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Cueto alongside members of the QEGS Wakefield School rugby team

The veteran wing will call it a day at the end of the season, bringing the curtain down on a career that has produced many memorable moments led by the 2005-06 Premiership title win and the 2007 Rugby World Cup, which nearly saw Cueto score a match-changing try had his foot not been ruled to be in contact with the touchline in the final defeat to South Africa.

During his time in the England set-up, Cueto was a regular alongside the likes of Jason Robinson, Josh Lewsey and Ben Cohen, and experienced trio who come with the accolade of being World Cup winners, but a look at the back-three that will start against France shows just 51 caps between them – 36 of which are accredited to full-back Mike Brown.

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Cueto attended the National Schools Cup finalists QEGS Wakefield School

It’s something that does cause concern for Cueto, as while he believes the current crop have a very strong all-round game, they have shown a tendency to produce an error when it matters most – a trait that stretches beyond the current wing-pairing and the reason why Jonny May found himself dropped from the squad mid-tournament.

“It's a fine line between experience and form really, but I think the situation that England are in, it's not like they've got an old head that they can drop in there,” Cueto explained. “I think their options are quite limited. Mike Brown is the only experienced back-three player in the squad. The other options are all young and vastly inexperienced at Test level, so it is very difficult so say 'you should pick him and you should pick him'.

“I was actually speaking to Jason Robinson in the car on the way over here about exactly the same thing. The wingers they have in the squad all have a very muchness about them: they're all quick, all powerful, can all create something out of nothing. But on the flip side, they all have errors in them, and it's just a case of limiting the number of errors and the area of the field where you make those errors.

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May's error in Cardiff let Rhys Webb score Wales' opening try

“To make a clumsy error on the halfway line, you can do that. But I think Jonny May was the classic one, five metres out from the try line, and stepped in and Wales scored a try. Doing that 50 metres out wouldn't be highlighted. Unfortunately it's swings and roundabouts really but they haven't got any experienced guys there because they haven't got the likes of the Chris Ashtons, the Dave Strettles that in those situations should be in there, but are not in the squad. That's down to selection really, but I do like the look of Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson and I think if they get it right they can have a long career ahead of them.”

Mark Cueto was speaking at QEGS Wakefield School, 2015 NatWest Schools Cup Finalists, who will battle it out for the prestigious trophy at the Home of England Rugby, Twickenham Stadium, on Wednesday 25th March. Watch the action live at englandrugby.com/natwestschoolscup

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