It has been some considerable time since Mark Cueto contributed a try to the England cause. "Against France in the Six Nations a year ago," he confirms, squirming in his seat.
As tries have not exactly been falling off the trees at club level either – "the last one for Sale would have been up at Newcastle back in September" – he can feel a sense of humour failure coming on. "This is a first in my experience," he says. "I've always scored tries in the past, and as it's what I'm meant to do, the thing on which I'm ultimately judged... well, I can't pretend it's not getting to me."
He is being a little hard on himself. The job description of the international wing has changed considerably since the mid-1990s, when Rory Underwood, the purest of pure finishers, was selected largely on an uncanny ability to slip silently between individual blades of grass clustered around the left corner flag. Nowadays, the wide men are expected to have a strong kicking game, a thoroughgoing knowledge of the full-back role, an appetite for ball-carrying and ruck-setting, a penchant for big-hit tackling and a deep footballing intelligence that the likes of Underwood would barely have recognised. Cueto possesses these virtues in greater quantities than any of his rivals. Still, the odd try would be nice. Chris Ashton of Northampton, who poses the most obvious threat to his England place, has scored 19 of the things this season.
"The strangest aspect of this is that my all-round game is better than it's ever been," he continues, "and because of that, I still believe I'm offering value to the England side. I can remember a time when I couldn't get near the team despite being the leading try-scorer in the Premiership. The coaches then thought I had failings elsewhere and wouldn't pick me. Now, I'm doing most of those other things well while not doing the thing most people think a wing is there to do. Still, it's not as if I'm butchering chances – as if I'm being given tap-ins and somehow managing to sky them over the bar. It will come right again if I'm patient."
That much seems certain, and besides, he has a more important subject on his mind than a six-month break between tries. Namely, the situation at Sale, who landed with an almighty splat at the foot of the Premiership table last weekend and do not appear terribly well equipped to survive the relegation scrap with Worcester, Leeds and Newcastle that will unfold, to the acute discomfort of all, over the next eight weeks or so. Those who assume the England elite exist in some swanky parallel universe, cocooned from the grim realities of life among the proles, should spend half an hour in Cueto's company.
"I can't allow this to affect my performance with England – that wouldn't do anyone much good – but it's getting me down all the same," he admits. "There's no escape from it: when people aren't talking to me about it, the thing's still there in the back of my mind. To make matters worse, there's an element of helplessness about the way I feel at the moment because the Six Nations covers the best part of two months and, while I'm involved in it, there's nothing I'm able to do except speak to the coaches and players back at the club and give them all the encouragement I can. It's just a brutal time for all of us, whether people are up there in the thick of it or down here in the England hotel.
"Whenever I talk to Mathew Tait [the centre who plays alongside Cueto for club and country], it's about this subject. We don't want to get bogged down in it, but we both know there's no way around it. We were in a horrible place after playing Ireland in the last Six Nations match: we lost a game we should have won, and then found out that Sale had gone down to Gloucester and been spanked by 40 points. Some weekend that was. I've spent the last 10 years of my life at Sale and just committed the next four years of my career to the club. Suddenly, jobs are on the line. It's a nightmare."
Last weekend being "dead" on the Six Nations front, Cueto made the trip north to watch his clubmates draw a blank against Northampton (for whom the aforementioned Ashton scored a try, by way of rubbing it in). A difficult game against one of the form sides in the country was never likely to lighten his mood, but he felt he had to be there. "We all need to dig deep, whether we're playing or not," he explains.
So what happened? As recently as 2006, Sale were champions of England: in that campaign, Cueto set the ball rolling by scoring four tries in as many matches at the start of the campaign, put another past Leicester on grand final day and contributed handsomely to a Heineken Cup run that ended only when Biarritz wrestled their way to a narrow quarter-final victory in San Sebastian. From there to here? It's quite an effort in anyone's book.
"There are a number of reasons behind it," he replies. "Everyone knows we lost a lot of good players back in the summer, most of them to France. Also, there have been injuries – losing a forward as important as Andrew Sheridan for a whole season doesn't help – as well as international calls, which really make a difference when you don't have people like Luke McAlister and Juan Fernandez Lobbe available to you any longer. But we still have our share of top players and if you want the truth of the matter, we've under-achieved. We should have kicked on after winning the title four years ago, but we did the opposite.
"As a result, we're where you see us now. It's a serious situation, and we have to be serious about addressing it. People say we have a game in hand on the others at the bottom, but having lost at home to Leeds just recently, how can we look at any game and realistically say we'll take four points from it? The run-in fixtures may be slightly in our favour, but we'd be kidding ourselves if we used that as a straw to clutch. I can't say we'll be fine and expect it to be so just because we're Sale. We'll have to fight for everything we get."
Which leads us, in a roundabout kind of way, to England, who also have some fighting ahead of them: first against the Scots in Edinburgh this evening, then against the French in Paris. Cueto pays precious little attention to the criticism currently being aimed at the national team – "When you take more stick for beating a tough side like Italy away than you do for losing to Ireland at home, you can see why we disregard a lot of the things that are said and written," he remarks – but accepts that the team's attacking game is some way short of exhilarating.
"We're not finishing the opportunities we create nearly often enough," he admits, shortly after hearing the England attack coach, Brian Smith, identify the poor standard of support running as a major problem and describe it as a "back three issue", thereby laying the blame firmly at the feet of Cueto and his partners, Delon Armitage and Ugo Monye. "We're a yard off it at the moment, and that yard makes all the difference. We practise hard enough, God knows, but when it comes down to it in a game, the lines aren't quite there.
"Some of it is to do with our opponents and their blocking tactics. I'm not whining about it – these things have to be done – but a chance can easily slip away if you're supporting from a position that's slightly too deep or trying to get there at something less than full pace. That's what happens when you're being checked by a defender. But look, we're professional rugby players performing at international level. We've been playing together for the best part of 12 months; we have the familiarity, the mutual understanding. It's up to us to find a solution."
Powder dry: England's try drought
*Mark Cueto pre-Johnson (2004-2008): 0.5 tries per game
(26 matches, 13 tries, 65 points)
Cueto in Johnson era (April 2008-present): 0.15 tries per game
(13 matches, two tries, 10 points)
*England's record pre-Johnson (2004-08): 2.36 tries per game (44 matches, 104 tries, 1,028 points)
In Johnson era (April 2008-present): 1.89 tries per game (19 matches, 36 tries, 374 points)Reuse content