He has tried it every which way – a right wing last autumn, a full-back during the spring and summer, a left wing here in France – yet still, in the week of the World Cup final, he is struggling to find the form that made him one of the most reliable of England's players during the dark times. Mark Cueto, in the starting line-up for the climactic meeting with South Africa as a direct result of Josh Lewsey's mangled hamstring, has many points to prove this weekend, most of them to himself.
"It's been a frustrating period for me," he admitted yesterday after having his place in the team confirmed. "There were injury issues last season, but as we moved towards the World Cup warm-up matches in August, I felt as fit as I'd ever felt in my career. Then, in the minutes before kick-off in the first game against Wales, I picked up a hamstring problem of my own. It was a freak thing, but it set me back. A similar thing happened during the pool game with Tonga. Every time I think I'm close to getting where I want to be, something silly happens."
Cueto was good value for the Test cap he won with the British and Irish Lions against New Zealand in 2005, and that makes him a fine player in anyone's language. If he was not a special favourite of Sir Clive Woodward's, who went out of his way to avoid picking him for anything until finally relenting ahead of that final meeting with the All Blacks in Auckland, he impressed Woodward's successor, Andy Robinson, sufficiently to establish himself as an automatic selection for England between 2004 and 2006. Unfortunately, he suffered a hip injury just as Brian Ashton was reshaping the side to his own design. In Cueto's absence, the likes of Paul Sackey and David Strettle seized their opportunities.
Ashton's solution was simple. Short of a full-back – he saw Lewsey and Jason Robinson as wings, and was less than thrilled at the prospect of giving inexperienced youngsters like Olly Morgan of Gloucester, Nick Abendanon of Bath and Danny Cipriani of Wasps the No 15 shirt in the unforgiving environment of a World Cup – the coach identified Cueto: "He has the footballing intelligence, the kicking game and the strong defensive capacity to make a go of the job at the very top level," he enthused.
Things did not turn out as planned. In the warm-up match against France in Marseilles, panic set in: Cueto fumbled a routine defensive pick-up and then fly-hacked the ball into the shins of the retreating Dan Hipkiss. It was one error among many committed by all and sundry that night, but it was very public and looked desperate. "Mark is a better player than that," Ashton said, diplomatically. What he wanted to say was: "Jesus, what was that about?"
Confidence, that barely definable and notoriously elusive sporting virtue, seemed to evaporate, but Cueto has a solid record of international achievement on which to fall back, and he will draw on the memory of the 13 tries he scored in his first 20 Tests as he prepares himself for the most important match of his career. "I've played most of my rugby on the right wing, but as a left-footed player, I'm perfectly happy to move to the other side of the field," he said. "Did I expect to be called up? When Josh picked up his injury – and I'm massively disappointed for him – it was pretty obvious I'd be one of the options. It was a matter of keeping my fingers crossed. Now I know I'm involved, I can really involve myself in the emotion and excitement of the build-up. The pool stage of this tournament was a little weird – everyone seemed to be waiting for something to happen. This, on the other hand, is where the buzz is. It's a fantastic situation for any player to experience."
When England played the Springboks in the second round of group matches, Cueto was out of the picture and the back-three selection seemed short of clarity. Sackey, who had never played a serious game of rugby on the left wing, was handed the No 11 shirt, apparently on the basis that the coaches did not trust his defensive skills against the ruthless finishing of Bryan Habana. The Wasps wing found himself confronting the less celebrated J P Pietersen, who promptly scored two of the three South African tries.
On Saturday night, Sackey will finally get his chance against Habana, while Cueto will be charged with cramping Pietersen's style. He believes he will perform the task to Ashton's satisfaction – and, indeed, his own. "I don't think I've been going as badly as some people have made out, but I do feel I have things to prove," he said. "There could be no better opportunity. I'll be out there next to Jason, who'll be playing his last game of rugby. I've stood alongside the guy on rugby fields for years now and he's never been less than an inspiration. His farewell alone will make it a special occasion."
With that, Cueto disappeared into the team room to answer another congratulatory phone call. "It's been non-stop," he said. "I've had the thing on charge all day, and there's still no battery."Reuse content