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Swimming with Sharks By Andrew Elliott

Wherever he goes, whomever he meets, whatever he does, Mark Cueto knows his rugby career will always be associated with one moment: the try that never was. The one that got away.

You know the one… the moment in the 2007 World Cup final when he dived over in the corner for a try early in the second half. The moment when England fans truly believed they could win the Webb Ellis Cup. The moment when the referee, Alain Rolland, went upstairs to the TMO to check if Cueto’s toenail was in touch. The moment when Stuart Dickinson (after an interminable wait) decided it was ‘no try’. The moment when momentum swung South Africa’s way in a match the Springboks would win 15-6.

It seems very harsh to pinpoint that one moment in a career that spanned 14 years at Sale (including the 2005-06 Premiership title), 55 matches for England, 20 international tries and a Test cap for the British & Irish Lions on the 2005 tour to New Zealand, but the former wing refuses to look back in anger.

The 41-year-old prefers to focus on the positives and actually uses it to his advantage in his current position as Commercial Director at the Sharks, where “in a nutshell, it involves managing the non-rugby side of the business, so the sponsorship, hospitality, ticketing, marketing, everything”.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d far rather it had been given, we’d won the game and I’d be a World Cup winner, but it didn’t so you have to turn it into a positive.

Mark Cueto

“I get reminded of it every day, it’s crazy,” said Cueto of the famous non-try. “It amazes me to this day that it’s still brought up considering it was so long ago. But my mindset has always been to be positive. I could probably drown in my own tears if I went on the negative side of thinking of 2007 and that World Cup final, but everything happens for a reason and it was an unbelievable experience. In a way, the fact we’re still talking about it now, 14 years on, that’s a positive for me.

“With the role I’m in now – and obviously pre-Covid – I’m quite often at events where the room isn’t full of rugby people. In a room of 100 people, one or two might recognise me but to the other 98 I’m just another guy in a suit. But as soon as you mention 2007 and England in the final, that guy who scored in the corner but the try was disallowed, suddenly those 98 remember it. Straight away, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, is that you?’ It’s a conversation-starter, an ice-breaker.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’d far rather it had been given, we’d won the game and I’d be a World Cup winner, but it didn’t so you have to turn it into a positive.”

Mark Cueto
Mark Cueto’s foot was deemed to be in touch as he slid over for England during the 2007 World Cup final (Photo by David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images)

So what moments make Cueto’s personal highlights reel? “For me to be able to tell my kids I’ve been a British & Irish Lion and played in a Test match is huge, enormous. I’ve got a Sale shirt, an England shirt and a Lions shirt framed in the kids’ playroom at home,” he said.

“I’ll never forget my Sale debut, my England debut, playing for the Lions. Winning the Premiership with Sale was obviously a special day, a special year – any silverware is always a special memory.

“I didn’t really have any massive lows. You could talk about the World Cup final, or there were two or three seasons where Sale missed out in the play-offs, but I try to not be negative and focus on the positives of a situation.”

There are plenty of positives to be gleaned from Sale’s season so far. Thriving under director of rugby Alex Sanderson, the Sharks are in third place in the Premiership and eyeing a place in the play-offs. Cueto singles out Sanderson, a former team-mate at Sale, for particular praise. In keeping with his life philosophy, Cueto doesn’t dwell on any negatives from the Steve Diamond era at the club and instead wants to look at what Sanderson brings to the party.

We’re keen to draw a line under the old regime, really put a flag in the sand and start a new era, a new journey for the club and everyone involved.

Mark Cueto

“We’ve done it on the rugby side in the past five years since [co-owners] Simon Orange and Ged Mason came in. They’ve invested heavily in the playing squad and brought in Alex Sanderson more recently, which has been a huge change and the results are there for everyone to see,” said Cueto. “Along with that, we’ve brought in a new CEO in Sid Sutton. We’re keen to draw a line under the old regime, really put a flag in the sand and start a new era, a new journey for the club and everyone involved.

“We have some brilliant players, Tom Curry is our star man, having been named in the Lions squad. That’s the first Lions player from Sale since 2005, when myself, Jason Robinson, Charlie Hodgson and a few other guys were lucky enough to go on that tour. That in itself shows where we’re at, the potential we’ve got and hopefully where we’re going to go over the next two to three years.

“Alex’s track record speaks for itself, having been involved with Saracens for the past 10 years. He started at the bottom and worked his way up to sort of the head coach and the next step for him was director of rugby. But with Mark McCall in at Saracens, that opportunity may not have come round for a while, so the timing with us was perfect.

“The fact that he’s a northern lad, he started his career with Sale before he moved down to Saracens, it almost felt like fate. With the history and ties to the club, it fell into line perfectly.

Alex was strong, he was fit, skilful, but physicality was his thing. He’d run in front of a bus if you told him to do that.

Mark Cueto

“We’re the same sort of age, Alex and myself, and I was a bit late to the rugby world. When I joined Sale in 1998-99, Alex was already playing first-team rugby, he was on the fringes of England and would soon be capped. He had a really bright and exciting future ahead of him. Unfortunately, he had some bad injuries and was forced to retire in his mid-twenties. But fortunately for him, there was an opportunity to get into the coaching set-up with Saracens and he has done unbelievably well.

“Physicality was first and foremost what made him stand out as a player. He was strong, he was fit, skilful, but physicality was his thing. He’d run in front of a bus if you told him to do that. Rugby is ultimately a physical sport, a contact sport, and that’s one of the attributes you need if you’re going to be successful.

Tom Curry
Tom Curry’s selection ends Sale’s long wait for a British & Irish Lion (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“As a coach, he brings a lot of passion, he’s a very good man-manager and a good motivator of men. He has also got a lot of detail and knowledge. He has travelled around the world, spent time with other teams, looking at other set-ups and styles. He has picked up a lot from Saracens and integrated it into his own style. He has certainly been doing a good job with us in the short time he has been here.

“Sid and Alex spoke a lot before Alex came here and one of the big things they agreed on was the culture and environment, making it the best place it can be. Offering players the opportunity to learn, to upskill, to make people better people, without wanting to sound too cheesy. That’s a massive part of what we’re trying to do on and off the field.

“It has been public knowledge of what Saracens did and how they changed the game. Ten years ago, a lot of Sale boys ended up at Saracens, so I’d speak to my mates about some of the things they were doing. The old adage of, ‘Happy wife, happy life’, they did a lot for the families.

“It’s about looking at the bigger picture. If you create a nice environment for people to work and you do the right things, you give yourself a far better chance of success.”

I see a lot of parallels with the team we’ve got now in terms of a lot of international star quality but built on a foundation of local, northern lads.

Mark Cueto

Sale are certainly still in with a chance of success this season with a play-off place tantalisingly within their grasp. Cueto “100 per cent” believes the current side can emulate the 2006 champions and if they’re not a mirror image, then there’s an undeniable likeness between the past and present teams.

“At the time, it’s not like you don’t appreciate it, but it’s not until you retire, or you’re sat on a beach a later and have time to reflect, that you realise how good and how special that 2006 team were,” said Cueto. “I look back and we had guys like Sébastien Chabal, Jason White, Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe and it was a real mix, we had some some unbelievable players. Philippe Saint-André was our DoR and it was a dream team.

Sale Sharks
Cueto was part of a sparkling Sale Sharks side who stormed to the Premiership title in 2006 (Photo by Tony Marshall/PA Images via Getty Images)

“But I see a lot of parallels with the team we’ve got now in terms of a lot of international star quality but built on a foundation of local, northern lads, like myself, Charlie Hodgson, Dean Schofield and Richard Wigglesworth. Look at the team now and we’ve got the Curry twins, Sam and Luke James, Josh Beaumont, a load of local talent but with a sprinkling of stardust with Faf de Klerk, the Du Preez brothers and Lood de Jager. There is a very similar feel to that 2006 squad. There’s a real unity in the team and so much potential.”

That South African contingent has made a huge difference to Sale and the likes of De Klerk and De Jager may well be facing the British & Irish Lions in the Test series in July and August. But if you’d hoped for any mud-slinging at Sale’s Springboks, any Sir Alex Ferguson-esque mind games, then you’ll be very disappointed as Cueto holds them in the highest regard, both as players and as people.

“Faf and Lood, they’re World Cup winners – you can’t put a value on what they bring on and off the field to a team and squad,” said Cueto.

The minute they walk over that white line on to a rugby field, their mentality is unbelievably confrontational. They’re not dirty but just really physical.

Mark Cueto

“As a group, I couldn’t say a negative word about them, they’re unbelievable lads. Really good, honest, nice, hard-working lads, but then they bring that physicality on the pitch. It’s like they’re brought up in a different way. The minute they walk over that white line on to a rugby field, their mentality is unbelievably confrontational. They’re not dirty but just really physical.

“They’ve complemented the club. We pride ourselves on our grit, determination and honesty – all those sort of northern qualities – and they have got those qualities in abundance.

“There are no airs and graces with them and they have old-fashioned values. Every morning, they’ll come up and say hello, whether you’re a fellow player or not. They may not know who you are or what you do exactly, but if they pass someone in the corridor or are stood next to somebody while making a brew in the canteen, they’ll say hello. Little things like that show you the kind of lads they are.”

But all that praise doesn’t mean Cueto is backing the Boks to repeat their 2009 triumph over the Lions this summer. “I fancy us because South Africa haven’t had any games in the past 12 months,” said Cueto. “You look at the Six Nations and how England performed when the players hadn’t played many games. Those Saracens boys looked really rusty. It puts South Africa at a real disadvantage.

“It’s never going to be easy but I fancy the Lions to win the series 2-1.” Now that would certainly be a moment never to forget.

More stories from Andrew Elliott

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