Mark Cueto Interview: 'These tours and the outcomes aren't always the be-all and end-all'

Mark Cueto toured Australia with England in 2010

By full-time, the latest post-mortem into another disappointing England performance was well and truly underway.  

As Eddie Jones's troops trudged off the field in Perth, any nostalgic throwbacks to the good old days of 2016 had evaporated as the 14-men of Australia claimed the first victory in this three-Test series.

Having spoken to both Mike Brown and Chris Robshaw last week, the pair highlighted 'aggression both sides of the ball' and being on the money when it came to the set-piece as two crucial elements to a successful tour Down Under. Despite a relatively neat and tidy start from England, they ended up being outfought in some of those key areas by a Wallabies side who were a man down for more than half of the game.

Even back in the summer of 2010, 15 months out from a World Cup in New Zealand, that display of intent played a vital role in England clinching a 21-20 victory over Australia.

"It goes without saying that in any game of rugby, set-piece is key but particularly against the Aussies," says Mark Cueto who featured in that particular win in Sydney. "Historically and traditionally, it has been a strong part of the English game so it needs to be the big focus. It will be about getting that foothold [in the second Test] and making sure we have got a strong solid set-piece, putting us on the front foot and getting us into the right areas of the field and then hopefully we can show a bit more."

In the pack, Jones will be forced to reshuffle with Sale's Tom Curry ruled out for the remainder of the tour because of concussion. News arriving from Australia suggests Sam Underhill, Curry's partner in crime at the 2019 World Cup, will slot into the seven shirt whilst in the backs, England will be keen for more fluidity. 

Jones has already outlined his commitment to the Marcus Smith/Owen Farrell axis by suggesting the pair will line up alongside each other in Brisbane on Saturday whilst Jonny May's Covid-hit series means there could be a new look to the back three with Henry Arundell tipped to come in after providing the brightest of sparks from the bench last week.

The England boss will confirm arguably his most crucial selection since the World Cup final on Thursday morning and one of the key decisions will be whether the aforementioned Farrell will be reinstated as captain.

The Saracen was stripped of the preverbal armband for the first Test with Jones describing him as "unhappy" and Cueto feels he wouldn't be surprised to see Farrell restored as skipper for at least one of the two remaining games.

"Knowing Owen, even if isn't captain on the team sheet, he has still got that role because he is so important," Cueto tells TRU. "At 10 or 12, everything goes through him. Even before he was named captain, he was one of the mouthiest guys on the field! I just think it [the captaincy] can be an extra responsibility on the day not just on the pitch, but before the game, the build-up to the game.

"You are distracted because you lose a bit of time to purely focus on your game and your individual performance because you are thinking about the lads and making sure the team is in the right place so I think Eddie just wanted to take that pressure off Owen because he was coming back into the side. I wouldn't be surprised if he stays fit, we will see him as captain in one of the other games just because Faz is so on it."

England now face the uphill task of saving the series in Brisbane, where Australia have won their last 10 fixtures - a record which goes back to 2016.

Whilst there continues to be more questions than answers around Jones's team ahead of next year's World Cup, Cueto was keen to explain the two sides of the coin he experienced during his England career.

"These tours and the outcomes aren't always the be-all and end-all," adds Cueto. "I speak and make the comparison of playing in two World Cups for England in 2007 and 2011.

"In 2007, we had a horrific six months prep. Leading up to that World Cup, we bombed in the Six Nations, we had a terrible tour to South Africa. We lost two Test matches and conceded over 100 points in two games, and there is a lot of other stuff we can talk about, but essentially we got to the final of that World Cup.

"Compare that to 2011, we couldn't have had a better build-up and a bigger contrast. We won the Six Nations that year, we toured Australia and played two games. We lost one, but we won in Australia for the first time in 10 years. We then go to the World Cup and we got knocked out in the quarters so depending on how it goes, you just take it for what it is.

"Without stating the obvious, it goes without saying that you want to win a series and you want to play well and you want to build towards World Cups but again if it doesn't go too well, you've still got plenty of time to change and make adjustments before that World Cup starts."

Cueto's optimism can be admired and very much respected, but the raw facts are England have won just four times away from Twickenham in this World Cup cycle and the pressure on Jones is increasing as the clock continues to tick towards France 2023.

Whilst England look short of structure and a clear vision, the same can't be said of the hosts for next year's showpiece event.

Last Saturday, Les Bleus put their foot down in the second half to defeat Japan in their first Test of the summer and the Six Nations champions are currently second favourites behind New Zealand to win the World Cup, something Cueto can't argue with.

"They are certainly the in-form team in the northern hemisphere," Cueto said. "They almost look back to the form of the old French. Loads of flair, loads of pace, loads of power. They are probably the closest thing to the All Blacks right now. They have got massive bulk and power and strength up front, but the flair behind the pack and what they are capable of doing is different level.

"On the day and the form they are showing, they have probably not been in this good of a place for probably almost 10 years, but certainly the last 12-18 months they are looking really dangerous. 

"It is a funny one for the French. They are a funny breed! Normally being at home is a massive positive for everyone, but they can almost put too much pressure on themselves and bottle it a little bit but they are ones to watch."

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