IRATE is not a word that springs to mind frequently during a chat with the affable Mark Cueto. The very epitome of laid-back, he seems the kind who would meet the clamping of his car with a good-natured shrug. But the England wing bristles and takes a deep breath when one particular subject is brought up.
England, so the popular theory goes, have failed to convince under Martin Johnson because of the manager’s over-prescriptive approach. That was the predominant factor in a gloomy autumn campaign that featured two defeats and just one try in three Tests, according to some observers. Not Cueto.
“Players moan about there being too much structure in the autumn, that they weren’t able to play their normal game or express themselves. In a way I think it’s almost an excuse,” the Sale star explains.
“A team needs a structure. You can’t have 15 guys running around a field doing what they want. When it comes to it on the day, the guys on the field with the ball in their hand have got to react to what’s happening in front of them.
“You don’t see a hole in the defence in front of you and think ‘shit, I’ve been told I’ve got to pass this way or that way or kick it’. You react to what’s in front of you. That’s always been there, but I think the players we have got now are more confident and experienced to take advantage of that on the day.
“I think the talk of Martin Johnson being over-prescriptive has been massively blown out of proportion. Hugely. Definitely.
“There is a difference in our approach to the last Six Nations and the first two autumn internationals. We changed tactics for the New Zealand game and they worked well against possibly the best team in the world. There is still a structure, just a different one.”
A more important factor in the eyes of the 30-year-old, ahead of tomorrow’s Six Nations curtain-raiser against Wales at Twickenham, is the return of key individuals who missed the November programme.
“When players are injured, quality players come in. But players like Nick Easter, Riki Flutey – experienced players who bring a lot of confidence to the team – they are difficult to replace,” he says. “When then come back everything just seems to work that much better.
“There is a buzz, a bit of excitement about the place. It’s probably the best squad that we’ve been able to pick from for a long time. For once most of the guys are fit and ready to play, whereas in the past there’s nine, 10-plus players unavailable. From that point of view we’re in a really good position.”
If Cueto does not buy the argument about prescriptivism, he is also sceptical of the theory England could struggle against a formidable Welsh all-British Lions front row.
“Wales is going to be tough but it always is,” he adds. “We’ve got a big, strong pack and we’ve identified areas where we think we can attack them and are confident we can exploit that. The basics are that you need to win the battle up front first, and I’m sure that we can do that.
“As long as we get a bit of decent ball then our backs can exploit the spaces we think there are going to be and get a few tries.”
Mark Cueto was speaking at the announcement of QBE as official insurance partner of England Rugby. For more information, please visit www.qbeeurope.com/rugby