After closing the curtain on a successful Six Nations campaign with a brutal loss against Ireland, England trudged off the Aviva pitch broken yet triumphant. But wing Mark Cueto was not satisfied.
“It was a very bittersweet moment with a lot of mixed emotions. We were happy to have won (the Six Nations) but obviously we were disappointed with the performance. To lose like that was massively frustrating,” reflected Cueto.
Of course there were plenty of positives to take from England’s Six Nations campaign – not least for Cueto himself, who was part of an extremely effective back three unit. But that the Sale winger and the rest of his teammates left the field with such disdain for their performance, taking little consolation from their tournament triumph, shows just how far this group have travelled, in both experience and mind.
With the Rugby World Cup fast approaching, and taking stock of their past performances before the Johnson reign came into full swing, England could scarcely have hoped to be better placed. Indeed this is certainly a view supported by Cueto, himself a member of the side that narrowly lost out to South Africa in the final of the 2007 World Cup.
“The last experience was unbelievable, but now I’m just really looking forward to the next. Playing with the likes of (Ben) Foden and (Chris) Ashton; they just have so much enthusiasm which really rubs off,” began Cueto, who pondered for a second before offering a ringing endorsement of his current teammates.
“In my time with England I’ve played with some truly world class players – guys like Jason Robinson, Matt Dawson and Lawrence Dallaglio. Although currently, and it’s crazy to say, I actually feel like I’m playing in a better team with individuals just as talented.”
As one of the select few England players with experience of a World Cup, Cueto’s words will hold weight. “The most successful sides build continuity – both on the field and off the field – and I feel that’s what we’re doing here,” said the winger.
At 31 years of age, Cueto, alongside Mike Tindall, performs an elder statesmen role in the talented back division. Northampton wing Chris Ashton has rocketed into international rugby with impressive showings backed up by well-taken tries, while Ben Foden has also confirmed his place in the international rugby elite. Cueto’s well-rounded game, possessing both kicking and defensive ability of which an inside centre would be proud, provides a natural complement to the two young rogues.
However, with David Strettle in the midst of a rare period of both form and fitness and the merits of James Simpson-Daniel coming to the fore once again, Cueto faces a battle to retain the shirt he has held so consistently of late. Unsurprisingly, the Manchester-born wing welcomes the challenge.
“There are always guys coming up behind so it’s nothing new for me,” began Cueto. “I feel like I’m in a position where I’m not really fighting for a spot but you’re never not under pressure. It’s good for the team as a whole to have competition.”
Cueto’s end of season plans with Sale were hampered after he was banned for nine weeks following a charge of “making contact with the eye or eye area” of Northampton’s Christian Day.
“I’d actually had an issue with my knee and that ban allowed me some time to get it sorted,” said Cueto. “Without the time off, I’m not sure where I’d be at with regards to recovery. It’s all tidied up now and behind me and the knee is feeling good. I’ll be with England in mini-camps before we all get back together as a whole squad at the back end of June. I can’t wait.”
In a sport where a strong mentality and experience is crucial, a player of Cueto’s calibre is worth his weight in gold. England will be grateful to have him fully firing when the World Cup begins in September.
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