Players dream of playing in a World Cup final, but as Mark Cueto discovered, it can all end horribly. Nick Westby reports.
Millimetres. A few blades of grass. A split second.
All adds up to the difference between winning the biggest game of all and losing it.
Jusk ask Mark Cueto.
In the final eight years ago in Paris’s Stade de France, the England wing and the thousands watching in the stadium and millions around the world thought he had scored a try at the start of the second half that would have brought England to within a point of South Africa.
Andy Gomarsall offloaded in his direction from a metre out, and Cueto made a fine catch after Jonny Wilkinson had tipped the ball into his path.
Cueto, three metres out and within a whisker of the touchline, dived for the tryline under pressure from Springbok No 8 Danie Rossouw.
The initial reaction was a try, but Irish referee Alain Rolland sent the decision upstairs.
For two whole minutes Stuart Dickinson of Australia, the video referee, agonised..
Replays played in the stadium were beamed around the world. From certain angles, Cueto’s left foot, which had hit the ground, flicked back up and over the white line, just as he grounded the ball beyond the try line.
Englishmen believed it was a certain try. South Africans the opposite. Dickinson, with not enough clear proof, erred on the side of caution.
English hearts sank. Cueto stood in disbelief, his hands on his head.
Eight years on it is still the defining moment of what was a glorious career for club and country; domestic and European success with his only team Sale Sharks and 55 caps encompassing two World Cups for England, not to mention a tour with the British and Irish Lions.
But there is no bitterness in Cueto, only lingering pride.
“Whatever will be will be for me,” says the 35-year-old who retired from playing, on his terms, only in May.
“It was a massive shame the try was never given. I still think it should have been but you crack on, you don’t have time to ponder on decisions like that in a game.
“I’m a big believer in taking positives out of everything and there’s a million players who’ve never played in a World Cup, let alone a World Cup final, so for me I’m hugely proud that I did. Not many of my mates can say that.
“It was hugely disappointing at the time but you can’t turn back the clock. I can only take positives out of the experience.”
As he can his second World Cup, four years later, even though England’s campaign was marred by off-the-field controversy and ended abruptly with a flat performance in the quarter-final against France.
The two tournaments offer contrasting lessons for the current England squad who kick-off the eighth global tournament against Fiji tomorrow night at Twickenham.
Is there anything Stuart Lancaster and the current incumbents can learn from that?
“On paper there’s a perfect preparation and a not-so great preparation, but regardless of that it rarely has a direct impact on the outcome, or at least that’s my experience of it,” offers Cueto.
“I thought we went into the 2007 World Cup so mentally prepared and yet we got hammered in the pool game against South Africa, but turned it around and reached the final.
“By contrast, in 2011, we had a fantastic 12 months prior and a fantastic run in the pool, conceded one try, scored a hatful, and then suddenly after the quarter-final we’re flying back home. You cannot get too caught up with what’s going on around you, you can only take it one game at a time.
“If you do that and have prepared for that one game in the right way then you never know what can happen.
“Stuart’s got them in a great place, they’ve got their feet on the ground they’ve got a good coaching staff, they’ve had good form in the last 12 months.
“So that tells you they’re in a good position, but it will all be forgotten if they don’t go out there and do the job.”
Cueto will be working during the World Cup; representing Land Rover as well as hosting guests and corporate clients.
But if he got one chance to speak to England’s chosen 31, what would he say?
“Don’t let it pass you by,” he says. “There’s a lot that surrounds a World Cup and each game of a World Cup is enormous. It’s one in a million chance.
“Especially with them being the home team with so much expected.”
That for Cueto is key. Home advantage should be precisely that, a leg up, not a burden. They can’t let the enormity of the occasion get to them,” he continues.
“As a sportsman you’ve got so many factors outside of what you’re trying to do but it can’t be looked on as a pressure, it’s got to be an advantage.
“The huge crowd, your family in the crowd, that has to be turned to your advantage.
“You can’t use excuses like it was a World Cup on our own doorstep so it brought added pressure, it should be an added confidence.
“I hope they take strength from it being in England.”
Mark Cueto was speaking on behalf of Land Rover, a Worldwide Partner of Rugby World Cup 2015. Land Rover is recruiting all 96 official mascots for the tournament as part of its ‘We Deal In Real’ campaign. Follow @LandRoverRugby #WEDEALINREAL