The morning shift has just finished out on the fields of Sale Sharks' training complex at Carrington, on the west side of Manchester. As the players break from a huddle and head off towards the changing rooms, Lionel Faure, a Frenchman evidently with prop idol pretensions, strikes up a chant of "Cueto for England, Cueto for England". Someone else punts a ball in the general direction of Mark Cueto and Sébasatien Chabal, l'Homme des Cavernes, very nearly collapses to the ground in a fit of laughter.
The larking Sharks disappear into the warmth of the pavilion, but the question remains: will their deadly finisher of a wing come in from the cold on the international front? We shall find out today when Martin Johnson, the England manager, announces the amendments to his 32-man elite squad for the looming Six Nations. The smart money is on Cueto making the cut.
The try the native Cumbrian plundered from a starting position at full-back in Sale's 14-8 win against London Irish at Edgeley Park last Friday night was his sixth of the season in Premiership action, putting him joint top of the finishers' tree with Wasps' Paul Sackey and Bristol's David Lemi. It was the timeliest of cherries to plonk on top of a marked return to all-round form for Cueto in a Sale side who have won four of their last five Premiership matches and who travel to Thomond Park with not a little hope in their hearts for the win-or-bust Pool One Heineken Cup encounter with Munster on Friday.
It just so happened that Johnson was in the crowd at the Stockport last Friday, although he departed without giving a personal nod or a wink in the direction of the razor-sharp Shark. "No, I didn't see him," Cueto says, sitting in the office of the upstairs gym, sporting a mild shiner underneath his right eye (a souvenir that came courtesy of Seilala Mapusua, Irish's Samoan centre, rather than the hooker David Paice, with whom he was despatched to the cooler for a spat that followed his match-winning score). "I don't think he came in to the bar afterwards. But the game went well. We got a great win against the team at the top of the league. I scored a try and it went quite well for me, so it was nice that Martin was there."
It would be quite nice for Cueto if his England career could be fast-forwarded from the night he played his freeze-framed starring role in the World Cup final. It has been on hold for the 29-year-old since the October evening in 2007 when time stood still for him and the rest of the English nation in the Stade de France. Play was held up for four minutes while Stuart Dickinson, the television match official, pondered whether England's No 11 had clipped the touchline with the outside of his left boot in the act of stretching to deposit the ball in the left-hand corner of the Parisian pitch. Jonny Wilkinson was readying himself for a conversion attempt that would have put Brian Ashton's unlikely lads into the lead for the first time. The kick never came. Cueto's scoring mark was ruled invalid and England proceeded on their way to a 15-6 defeat against Jake White's Springboks.
Speaking on the anniversary of the final, Cueto said that a day never passed without him being asked about the try that never was, the try that never was given at any rate – the rugby equivalent of the 1966 Geoff Hurst "Crossbar Moment" in English sporting folklore. "Yeah, it has been talked about today," he reports with a smile. "I don't know... It's 15 months on now and people still talk about it. It's a bit of an ice-breaker, I suppose, in certain situations. And it's something that people are really interested in. I don't sit at home replaying the video or anything like that. I don't think I've ever done that. But I know it's something that will always get talked about."
With his England cap collection stuck on 24 (and his international try count on 13), presumably it is something from which the high speed chunk of a winger is anxious to move on. "No, I wouldn't say I'm anxious to move on from it," Cueto says. "I've just wanted to get back playing my best rugby and enjoying my rugby, which is what I'm doing now. I went through a lot over the 12 months that followed the World Cup final, with injuries, with things that happened off the field. So from that point of view I feel like I've turned a corner; I can put that behind me and move on. My England career is not all about that try. I feel as though I've got a lot more in the bank in terms of what I can do. I'm eager to get back involved and to play for England again."
Will the 2005 Lion be disappointed, then, if he fails to make it back into the 32-man England frame, as one of the five changes Johnson is permitted to make on the basis of shifting form? "Yeah, I think so," Cueto replies. "Not that I expect to be picked, but I think that the form – the way that I have been playing for the last six to eight weeks – is probably the closest that I've been to the form that got me in the England set up in the first place.
"From that point of view, in a way, if I don't get in now I feel like I almost never will, because I don't think there's a lot more that I can give. I'm scoring tries, and the other aspects of my game are back to the top: my defence and my kicking game. Not to say that I can't improve. But generally I feel like I'm back up there where I need to be. And in the past 12 months, when I haven't been in the squad, I could completely understand why. I was nowhere near where I needed to be. Now I feel like I am, so fingers crossed for tomorrow."
It was not so much crossed fingers as a disjointed back that was the cause of Cueto's post World Cup travails. Dogged by calf injuries and hamstring injuries, his fitness fell off and his form with it – until it was found that his problems stemmed from a bulging disc. Word came from down the road at the Manchester United training complex that changing his car might help. Just like Ryan Giggs, he traded in his Porsche 911, with its low-slung seat. He also changed his bed and his mattress.
"All of those changes have added up to taking the strain off my back," Cueto says. "The club have been fantastic with me. It took a while to get to the root of the problem but we've managed to get on top of it, and get me back to the position where I am now." Which is on the brink of national service again, or so it would seem.
Making his Mark: Cueto's vital statistics
Mark John Cueto
Born: 26 December, 1979, Workington, Cumbria
Height: 1.83m (6ft)
Weight: 95kg (15st)
Appearances (pts): 125 (315)
Previous club: Altrincham Kersal
* Cueto was one of the first five players in Premiership history to record 50 tries.
* Currently joint leading Premiership try scorer with six.
* He has 13 tries in 24 Tests for England, and has three British & Irish Lions caps.Reuse content