When Mark Cueto was a teenager he dreamt of representing his country by flying planes for the Royal Air Force (RAF). He completed five days of training at the Cranwell base, but was advised to go to university instead. Cueto never did. He took up rugby and has not looked back. "Part of me thinks I was young, that it was a fantasy thing, but I was dead set on the RAF at 15," said Cueto, who has represented Sale Sharks and England for the past nine years.
"Whether I'd have been cut out for it, I really don't know. It's difficult to imagine what it would be like being in action. A mate in the Royal Marines never got on the front line, but would have preferred to go out to Afghanistan than play in a World Cup final like me. It's a different mentality; that's their big game. I can't believe I've been playing rugby this long though." Cueto, 30, has establised himself as one of his country's leading wingers and overcome injuries which almost ended his career in 2008. "There were times I used to think, 'Geez, this is the end', but I was only 27 and felt I was still so young to stop then. I never lost that desire to play and always had a belief that someone could fix you," he said.
"I've got a bulging disc in my back and you can't cure it, but my body is in a better state to deal with it. I feel as good now as I've ever felt; strong, fit and quick." This time last year Cueto saw light at the end of a dark tunnel when he was recalled for England's Six Nations campaign. His last international appearance had been the 2007 World Cup final loss to South Africa. He helped England to a surprise second-place finish behind Ireland, but as he prepared for this season's Six Nations opener against Wales at Twickenham today he is hoping they can now claim their first title since 2003.
"We went to Croke Park and lost by a point when we were down to 14 men, so you have to think we are not far off Ireland," he said. "The only way to improve is to win it and I don't think it's out of the question. Ireland are strong, but it's difficult to predict a favourite and that's what makes the Six Nations so special. Last year everyone was talking about Wales, but they have not found their best form. "France were flying in the autumn, but then were beaten convincingly by New Zealand, and Scotland beat Australia, so you can't rule anyone out. We just know that if we play to our capabilities, then we can beat anybody."
Cueto is desperate for success with England. The World Cup eluded him in 2007, following a controversial moment that few allow him to forget. Cueto thought he had scored a 42nd-minute try that would have narrowed the Springboks' lead to a point but Stuart Dickinson, the television match official, ruled that Cueto's left boot had brushed the touchline before he grounded the ball. "It's ridiculous to think three years on it's still talked about, but it was a huge occasion and something that could have changed all our lives if we had gone on to win," he added. "I'll always say it was a try even if it was not given. What happened does push me for the World Cup in 2011. There's always something burning inside you to achieve more and win things. I'm confident I can be a top force for that and then I'd look to finish international rugby and concentrate on my final years and do well with Sale."