Time to deliver
Mark Cueto tells skysports.com that England are in good shape heading into the 2011 World Cup.
By Chris Burton
Last Updated: 26/07/11 5:47am
When Martin Johnson was charged with the task of rebuilding an ageing England side in the wake of the 2007 World Cup it was clear that there was going to be no quick fix.
Yes, a side led by Brian Ashton came agonisingly close to defending the global crown secured four years earlier by Johnson and co, only to be denied by South Africa in the final, but it was difficult to argue against claims that England had massively over-achieved.
There were, however, foundations in place on which to build and a growing number of promising young stars starting to make a name for themselves within the Guinness Premiership ranks.
Nurturing this talent was always going to take time, with it important for potential to be protected rather than thrust into the centre of a side which was, for a couple of years at least, very much a work in progress.
At times results dipped alarmingly, piling unnecessary and unjustified pressure on the broad shoulders of head coach Johnson.
This, though, was a man whose career took him to the very summit of the game, with challenges and opponents brushed aside in equal measure.
Johnson was not a man to be messed with during his playing days and there was no chance of this 6ft 7in leopard changing its spots any time soon.
His frequent calls for patience often fell on the deaf ears of those who demand instant and sustained success, with England a nation famed for its ability to build people up, only to then send them crashing back down to earth with a bump.
Throughout his tenure Johnson has refused to let the doom-mongers get to him, though, and his long-term planning may be about to bear fruit.
Eight years on from his defining moment in Sydney, when he lifted the World Cup high into the night sky in front of a downtrodden Australian home support, there is every chance that England's heroic leader of the class of 2003 could be about to scale such heights again - only this time he will have to let someone else raise the William Webb Ellis trophy.
The World Cup is back in the Southern Hemisphere in 2011 and England will arrive in New Zealand as reigning Six Nations champions and a side ready to unleash its considerable potential on a much grander scale.
The excitement is building within the camp, as rugby's showpiece event edges ever closer, and skysports.com's Chris Burton recently caught up with Sale Sharks winger Mark Cueto to gain a greater insight into the mood around the camp heading into what could be a memorable autumn.
He said: "It seems to have come around so quick. You get the last season out of the way and then you are thinking about pre-season and getting through that and the World Cup feels like miles away, but it's only a few weeks now until we play our first game against Wales and it's going to be non-stop from there. The boys are training hard and training well, though, and everything seems to be shaping up well.
"You obviously take every game as it comes - summer tours, autumn internationals and six nations - and you're solely focused on them at the time, but the bigger issue is the World Cup. In the last 12-18 months the team has done well. There have been disappointments in that time, but we are shaping up pretty well. We have got plenty of confidence, plenty of momentum, but also things to work on. All in all, we aren't in a bad place."
As an experienced member of the international fold, Cueto has always bought into Johnson's belief that it was going to take a full four-year, World Cup cycle for England's rose to reach full bloom once more.
"Teams don't just drop into place over night, it takes time," he said.
"Martin has had to get his coaching staff in place and put all those factors together. It also takes time to put a playing team together, one that is consistent. Squads need continuity for partnerships to develop. You also need to have a little bit of luck with regards to players staying injury free. Touch wood, we have had that for 12 months and you are starting to see the results."
The England camp has also embraced the emergence of fresh and exciting talent in the last few years - with the likes of Chris Ashton, Ben Foden, Dylan Hartley and Ben Youngs having burst onto the scene, while Toby Flood has stepped out of Jonny Wilkinson's considerable shadow to become a world-class fly-half in his own right.
"There are a lot of guys that have come in and been able to transfer their club form onto the international stage - like the guys you mentioned there, and that's exciting," said Cueto.
"After that you have got the more experienced guys - Wilko, (Mike) Tindall, (Nick) Easter, myself. We have got a good balance in the team and it has come together really well."
Team spirit has also become integral to the England cause and Cueto insists some good-natured competition within a sizeable 45-man training squad will help to bring those selected to lead the World Cup charge even closer together.
He said: "Everyone gets on really well and there is a great spirit in the camp, but deep down you know that there are only a certain number of places and if you let your standard drop you won't go. So there is huge competition but, regardless of whether it's the World Cup or the Six Nations or anything else, that competition is constant and there is never a time when you aren't competing for your place. That's the same now as it has always been over the last few years. That's sport and competing at this level.
"It's all about everyone pulling in the same direction. So much can happen, one minute you can feel like you are a million miles away from going and the next you are on the plane. Likewise, it can work the other way. There is a lot of camaraderie in the squad, we have got a really tight squad, but at the same time there is huge competition."Among those hoping to book a seat on the plane to New Zealand is Matt Stevens, who has only recently returned to the fold following a two-year drugs ban.
The affable 28-year-old has had to prove himself all over again, but a number of notable displays for new employers Saracens have helped to bring him back under the international umbrella.
On Stevens, Cueto said: "He has been out of the game for a while. He has come back and he has shown his class since he's been back. He has played a lot of rugby and he looks to be back to his old self. He is training really hard and he has played for England for quite a long time, so it has been quite easy for him to slot back in. I'm really pleased for him and in the future we will have to see what happens."
South Africa-born Stevens is just one of a whole host of non-English born players currently scrapping for places in Johnson's starting XV.
The decision to call upon nationalised stars has not gone down well with some - those who would prefer to see an England team made up entirely of Englishmen - but Cueto insists selection should not be considered an issue as long as those drafted in buy into the collective cause.
He said: "I think deep down, as long as everyone buys into what we are trying to do, which is to try and be successful, it's not a problem. There are some guys that are playing in the Premiership and they want to get to do well at whatever club they are playing for. As long as that is the same at England level, which I'm sure it will be, then there is no problem. As soon as you are out on that field you are fighting for your life, so to speak, and it doesn't matter as long as everyone is pulling in the same direction."
Cueto cannot wait to get back to 'fighting' for his life, with an enforced break towards the end of the domestic campaign leaving him straining at the lease.
The 31-year-old winger was handed a nine-week suspension by the RFU in April after pleading guilty to 'making contact with the eye or eye area' during a scuffle with Northampton's Christian Day.
Cueto admits he would rather not have been sidelined, but concedes that he could have been hit with a much longer ban and has at least been able to rid himself of a niggling injury problem while restricted to a spectator role.
He said: "It feels like a long time since I played, but I feel really good and I feel really fresh. I managed to have surgery on my knee, which was needed, and training has gone really well. I'm looking forward to getting back into the camp and training really hard and hopefully get some game time soon."
Pressed on how the knee is holding up after surgery, he added: "Yeah, it's fine. It's totally fine. There have been no problems. I have been training for the last five weeks full on and there have been no dramas whatsoever, so it's good."
Cueto admits there was a time when he thought his World Cup dreams may be dashed, with the operation coming on top of the ban, but claims his experiences, good and bad, have only served to make him all the more determined to leave his mark on the grandest stage in his chosen profession.
He said: "My initial thoughts on the ban were, 'I just don't know how this is going to go'. The nature of what it was, it could have been quite a lengthy ban. There was a lot of worry there, but thankfully it got sorted out and it's all behind me now and I'm just looking forward to playing again."