Mark Cueto: Dazzling Cueto, the Lion who was left behind

Sale's free-scoring wing tells Chris Hewett why he is mystified at being left out of Sir Clive Woodward's squad
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The Independent Online

Had Albert Einstein been serious about his work and concentrated his mind on the relative merits of British and Irish wings in a Lions year, as opposed to mere relativity, one name would have emerged from the final equation in capital letters. Sir Clive Woodward is no Einstein, it seems. Quite how the World Cup-winning coach and celebrated knight of the realm arrived at the decision to omit Mark Cueto from this summer's tour of New Zealand ranks high among the mysteries of the age, and had the mighty German physicist been asked to solve it, he would have been forced to admit: "This I cannot explain."

Had Albert Einstein been serious about his work and concentrated his mind on the relative merits of British and Irish wings in a Lions year, as opposed to mere relativity, one name would have emerged from the final equation in capital letters. Sir Clive Woodward is no Einstein, it seems. Quite how the World Cup-winning coach and celebrated knight of the realm arrived at the decision to omit Mark Cueto from this summer's tour of New Zealand ranks high among the mysteries of the age, and had the mighty German physicist been asked to solve it, he would have been forced to admit: "This I cannot explain."

Cueto is one hell of a try-scorer. Ask any Harlequins supporter, who saw their club disappear from the Premiership on the back of a blinding 50-metre try last weekend. Ask Philippe Saint-André, no slouch in the wing department during his years in the French Test team, who now coaches the 25-year-old finisher at Sale.

"He is a player who smells the line," said the man who scored the Try from Nowhere against England in 1991 and was largely responsible for the Try from the End of the World that did for the All Blacks in Auckland three years later. Saint-André has been known to make the odd left-field call on the selection front, but for the life of him, he cannot make sense of Woodward on this issue.

Can Cueto make sense of it? Not really. Not at all, in fact. As befits a man who is breezing along at a try a game for England - eight in eight appearances since making a belated debut against Canada last November - he cannot help but wonder who, what and why.

"I can't say I wasn't disappointed when the Lions party was named," he admitted this week, a few minutes after completing a furious training session at Edgeley Park in preparation for this afternoon's Premiership semi-final at Wasps. "And the first thing you think to yourself is: 'What more do I have to do?' But in the end, the only sensible approach is to keep your head down, keep working and trust that things will come right in the end. If you take a negative approach, you're on the slippery slope."

He has been here before, so to speak. Three years ago, Woodward picked him for England's two-match trip to Argentina, having seen him rattle up 13 tries in his first season as a Premiership professional. Cueto played in the midweek match against the Pumas' second-string, scoring one try and making another, and at the final whistle, the smart money said he would make his Test debut against the Pichots and Albaneses that very weekend. In the event, he did no such thing. The management duly dished out first caps to five players, but the rookie was not among them.

Despite continuing to score for fun at club level, he never found favour with Woodward; indeed, it was not until Andy Robinson took over as head coach last autumn that the worm finally turned, and only then because Cueto had scored so heavily through the early weeks of league activity. What happened in Buenos Aires? Did he miss training after a night in the casino, or pinch Woodward's pint?

"There were no problems that I can recall," he insisted. "I was very raw and inexperienced, though, and looking back on it now, I don't think it was the right time for me to move up into that environment, which is incredibly demanding. Yes, I scored a try in the midweek match. But there were parts of my game I was really struggling with - you have to remember that I'd played very little serious rugby, even at club level - and I don't think the England set-up is quite the place for people who aren't on top of things."

The man is a paragon of diplomacy, clearly. But how does he get his head around the intervening two and a half years, during which he regularly went try for try with his equally prolific club colleague, Steve Hanley, and made a home for himself at the top end of the Premiership scoring list?

"I must admit that I almost lost hope when England named a 60-man élite squad at the start of the season and my name wasn't in it," he said. "I didn't feel disappointment, to be honest with you. What I felt was a kind of resignation. But you either get down on yourself, in which case your form suffers, or you accept the situation for what it is and keep playing your heart out. I kept playing.

"Look, I'm not alone in this. Steve [Hanley] made his England debut as a 19-year-old in 1999 and hasn't played since, despite his scoring record, and I know for a fact that he's desperate for another chance at international level. But what can you do, except plug away as best you can? It's almost become a joke between us, all this rejection stuff. Because we both know what it's like, we're able to help each other out."

Conceivably, Cueto might feel harder done by had he taken the Jonny Wilkinson route into big-time rugby - minis, juniors, age-group honours and all the rest of it, non-stop rugby from playpen to professionalism with barely a break for pimples and puberty. But the Sale player did things differently. Born in Workington, he played some union at an early age before falling in love with football and devoting himself to his penalty-box diving and dribbling skills until his late teens.

"I have no regrets," he said. "Quite the opposite. Had I played rugby right the way through, I'd probably have grown sick of it by the time I was 15. And anyway, the long break I took from the game minimised the pressure on me when I started up again and found myself playing seriously. I don't mean to sound ignorant, but I didn't really know who people like Dan Luger and Ben Cohen were when I first came into the Premiership, because I hadn't watched much rugby on the television.

"When I found myself face to face with them, they had a lot more to lose than I did. My view was that if it didn't work out, I had a degree to fall back on. It gave me the security of knowing I could give it a real lash for a couple of years and not be any the worse off if I failed."

He did not fail then, and does not look like doing so now. Four seasons into his career, he has endured only one dry spell, a six-week run without a try that ended with a Six Nations hat-trick against Italy at Twickenham. ("I was in a bit of a panic at the time, but things tend to come right when you least expect," he said).

His strike-rate, especially when compared with those of the biggest names in England wings, is very good indeed. Cohen, for instance, took 10 matches to score eight tries. Luger managed it in 11 and Tony Underwood in 14. Dear old Rory Underwood, one of the great finishers in the history of the game, needed 25 games to get there. In recent memory, only the Bath centre Jeremy Guscott made a more telling start to his Test career, scoring eight tries in seven outings.

Worryingly for Wasps - and perhaps Leicester, who have already qualified for the Premiership final on Saturday week - the meteorological conditions are beginning to favour Sale. "We like the fast going," Cueto agreed. "We like it when we can rip up the game plan and play it as we see it, with our heads up.

"It may seem a bit peculiar, finishing third in the the league and still having a chance of winning the title, but as the opportunity is there, we're of a mind to take it if we can. It's why we were so determined to hang in there against Quins last week, even though we didn't play at all well. It probably sounds a little selfish given the relegation situation, but we had our own agenda in that game. When I scored the try, I didn't even notice the silence. I was very relieved and extremely happy."

Of course, the conditions will not be nearly so favourable when the Lions pitch up in New Zealand, but far from shedding some light on Woodward's selection, it muddies the waters still further. Thick-set and powerful at 6ft and 15st, Cueto is reminiscent of another northern wing, John Carleton, who prospered so handsomely in the Land of the Long White Cloud in 1983 and played three of the four Tests against the All Blacks. Who do the 2005 tourists have on their roster? Shane Williams and Iain Balshaw, both of whom might drown in a puddle.

"When all is said and done, I can only wait to see what happens," said the Sale man, who will certainly be on injury standby and might easily find himself on the long flight to Auckland sooner rather than later. "The nicest thing that has happened to me in all this is the support and reassurance I've received, not only from my club but from the England coaches. Andy Robinson, Phil Larder, Joe Lydon ... they've all been on the phone, telling me that as far as they are concerned, they're happy with what I've done at England level."

It is perfectly possible that both Robinson and Larder, two members of Woodward's back-room staff for the coming tour, disagree with Cueto's exclusion. If so, they have something in common with 99 per cent of the rest of the rugby world.

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