Sorry end to Cueto's season of distinction

Player of the year: Flying winger is worshipped at Sale and a favourite at Twickenham - but ignored by the Lions
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The Independent Online

Frank Cueto, Mark's father, used to play centre for Netherhall and Cumbria and once played against Bill Beaumont, the former England captain. Mark Cueto manages a wry smile at the mention of Beaumont's name.

Frank Cueto, Mark's father, used to play centre for Netherhall and Cumbria and once played against Bill Beaumont, the former England captain. Mark Cueto manages a wry smile at the mention of Beaumont's name.

The news of Cueto's startling omission from the Lions squad of 44 for the mission to New Zealand was delivered by Beaumont, the tour manager, who read out the names from a hotel at Heathrow. It was picked up by the Sale players on television. As Beaumont worked his way through the list in alphabetical order, Cueto did not have long to discover that he did not feature in the plans of Sir Clive Woodward, the Lions head coach. It wasn't meant to happen like this.

"We were told we'd receive a text message half an hour before the squad was announced to the press," Cueto said. "After training, we rushed to check our phones, but nobody had received anything, so we crowded around the TV set."

Cueto said he was "devastated". Sale provided four players: Jason Robinson, Charlie Hodgson, Andy Titterrell and Andrew Sheridan. "I was chuffed for Sale," Cueto said. "For the club to have four Lions was outstanding. At the same time, I was massively gutted. I just sat there staring at the TV. Nobody needed to say anything. Players either tapped me on the shoulder or patted me on the back. I went outside and rang dad, but not a lot was said. It was quite an emotional time."

Cueto was not the only one in shock. Nearly every observer bar Sir Clive had included him in their squad. To the media, Woodward refused to elaborate on his decision, and nor did he offer Cueto an explanation. However, Andy Robinson, Woodward's successor as the England coach, has offered words of comfort.

Robinson, one of Woodward's assistant coaches on the tour, told Cueto: "From an England point of view, I'm more than happy with your form and the way things have gone. I couldn't have asked any more and I'm delighted with what you've achieved."

The Lions will have 10 players on standby ready to fly to New Zealand to replace anybody who gets injured, and it seems inconceivable that Cueto will not be one of them. "If I don't make it, I'll watch it on TV," he said.

Cueto's try-scoring for Sale is the stuff of legend - in his first season, in 2001, he was the Premiership's outstanding finisher - and it was Robinson who promoted him to England's élite squad and international rugby this season. Cueto's response was eight tries in eight Tests.

On a day off, Cueto is enjoying a lunch break with his mother in the Cheshire Cheese in Crewe, his home town. "I broke into the England set-up and thought I did quite well," Cueto said, over a pint of Coke. "I've had a pretty decent season but, as a player, you try not to expect too much. There's no automatic selection for anything. I still feel I have to prove myself to Sale, let alone England. When I was top try-scorer in my first season, it was beyond my wildest dreams. I still had a massive amount to learn. I was determined to keep my head down and work at it."

Woodward selected Cueto for England's short visit to Argentina in the summer of 2002, and the wing wore the Red Rose jersey for the first time at the Buenos Aires cricket and rugby club. Despite Cueto scoring a try and creating another, England went down 29-24 to Argentina A. Then the premier selection, minus Cueto, defeated the Pumas in a Test. "At the end of my first professional season, it was a great achievement to get on that tour," Cueto said. "Having played in the midweek side, I knew I wasn't going to make the Test, and that was probably the right decision. I was a raw talent. Clive knew I could score tries, but I needed to work on just about everything."

When Jim Mallinder was the coach at Sale, Cueto continued to flourish, and the highlight of 2003 was a hat-trick of tries against Scotland in an A international at Northampton. "Jim let me do what I wanted to and I got by on that," Cueto said. "It gave me a lot of confidence. There's still plenty I can improve on, but I think my all-round game has got better every year."

His rise has been nothing if not dramatic, from Altrincham Kersal, the North Colts, English Universities (he has a BSc in sports science), Cheshire, Sale's academy side, the Jets, and the England sevens squad.

This season, not only did he become a favourite at Twickenham but he illuminated Edgeley Park with his exploits. In 23 matches for Sale, he has scored 17 tries; in 31 appearances for club and country, he has 25 touchdowns; in his first three games since the Lions letdown, he scored seven tries. For a number of reasons, Cueto is our player of the Premiership.

"I know that it's not all about scoring tries but, ultimately, that's my job. That's what I'm on the field to do. I don't know what more I could have done, although, had I gone on the Lions tour, I would have been one of the least experienced players, so maybe I was at a bit of a disadvantage."

James Wade, the head of Sale's academy and the coach responsible for recruiting Cueto, said: "Mark is the form wing in England and he has already got over his disappointment. There's no looking back. Everybody knows he's a prolific scorer, but he offers more than that. He's fearless. He's got a bit of grit about him. I wouldn't like to play against him. On top of everything, he's got a great attitude."

Cueto, who has played for England A in the Churchill Cup series in North America for the past two seasons, will not do so this summer, but he could feature in England's showpiece against the Barbarians at Twickenham later this month, a match that has taken on added significance.