New model Cueto ready for long run

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Christmas is naturally a time for taking stock, and for Mark Cueto doubly so. Today is the Sale and England wing's birthday, though he will barely have a chance to blow the 25 candles out on the cake before eschewing his parents' company at their house near Crewe, and setting off for afternoon training. It's a captain's run at the club and Cueto, though revelling in life on every front, is not about to keep Jason Robinson waiting.

"Things couldn't be going much better for me," said Cueto, and the justification for the sentiment is not difficult to identify. Last month he won his first three caps for his country, helping himself to four tries in the autumn series against Canada, South Africa and Australia at Twickenham. An unfortunate knock-on effect of the international window was to slam the door temporarily on Sale's fine start to the campaign, with the Mancunian side parted from the heart of their team and suffering three successive defeats as a result. But Cueto's contribution, when not on international duty, has been exemplary: seven tries in 10 appearances and, overall, a remarkable 49 tries in 95 matches since his senior debut in August 2001.

"The biggest improvement in my game this season has been getting up in the line to cut down the opposition's space," Cueto explained. "It is not that I'm more aggressive than before. It's just a change of approach, which all the Sale wingers have been using. You can give away easy territory to opponents down that five- or 10-metre wing channel. We're making sure we don't do that, and I guess it's one of the reasons I've had the recognition from England."

Sale host Bath in the Premiership tomorrow, with the teams third and fourth in the table respectively. Sale's advantage in points difference and bonus points reflects the commitment to attack under their coach, Philippe Saint-André. As a former wing and Test captain, the Frenchman has been good news for Cueto since arriving from Bourgoin last spring.

"Everyone here loved [the previous coaches] Jim Mallinder and Steve Diamond," said Cueto. "But it's been brilliant having the new challenge with Philippe and [forwards coach] Kingsley Jones. One thing we were keen to keep was the way Sale played, with backs who like to run with the ball. Philippe enjoys that style, and he's given me key pointers as an individual, too."

If Cueto fails to register his 50th Sale try tomorrow there are plenty more chances in January, with Premiership fixtures against Newcastle and Northampton either side of a European Challenge Cup double-header against Agen, and a Powergen Cup quarter-final rematch with Bath.

Then it's on, possibly, to Cueto's first Six Nations' Championship, not that he is taking anything for granted. "England is always in the back of your mind, but the long-term policy I've had with myself is to concentrate on club form. As soon as you lose focus and think about internationals that aren't upon you yet, you can quickly get on a slippery slope."

The Agen tie is likely to pit Cueto against Rupeni Caucaunibuca, the Fijian sensation of the last World Cup. The pair hail from opposite ends of the earth - the Englishman was born in Cumbria, with his name deriving from some Spanish ancestry - but share characteristics: burning pace and a wicked sidestep, a barrel of a chest if brute force is called for, and of course a simple love of scoring tries.

Cueto played mini-rugby between the ages of five and eight, then concentrated on football and had to be reintroduced to the oval ball at 17. In the third of three years spent with Altrincham Kersal, he would turn out in North West One on a Saturday and for Sale's Under-21s in midweek. "I needed game time - the more I played, the better it was for me." To judge by the messages of goodwill on the Altrincham Kersal website, Cueto's old cohorts are delighted at how he has edged past the likes of Ben Cohen, Dan Luger and the injured James Simpson-Daniel into the national team.

For a while, it seemed Cueto might not make the ultimate breakthrough. England went on a mini-tour to Argentina in June 2002, and although Cueto scored a try in the midweek team which lost narrowly to the Pumas' A side, he returned from the long trip south a long way off full selection.

"It was at the end of my first professional season," he recalled. "I was a raw player and there was a lot for me to learn. It wasn't that I didn't know to tackle, but my positioning was letting me down."

His positioning was spot-on for the try from Henry Paul's cross-kick against South Africa which thrilled Twickenham a few weeks ago. "It felt like I was waving my arms for ages," Cueto said with a chuckle. "Thankfully I caught Henry's eye somehow."

Sale and England will hope Cueto the birthday boy continues to catch the eye in 2005.