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Ashton puts a final show of faith in Cueto

By Gavin Mairs

The recall of Mark Cueto as Josh Lewsey's replacement for Saturday's World Cup final against South Africa represented Brian Ashton's last surprise of a roller coaster campaign that could yet end up in history-making glory.

Ashton was generally expected to have moved Matthew Tait from centre to wing, where he finished the France game, and handed Leicester centre Dan Hipkiss, who deputised so impressively against the French in the midfield, his first World Cup start.

Cueto, who has failed to find any form during the tournament and is low on confidence, is a straight replacement for Lewsey, whose hamstring injury has cruelly ruled him out of a second successive final.

Hipkiss, a hard-running and defensively robust centre, is unlucky to miss out but his lack of experience - he has only 61 minutes of this World Cup under his belt in three appearances from the bench - counted against him.

In contrast, Cueto, a British Lion in 2005, has 23 caps to his name and Saturday will be his fourth start of the World Cup after picking up a hamstring injury against Tonga three weeks ago.

And the Sale Sharks star is determined to seize what he called his " special chance".

"It has been a frustrating time for me in general," said Cueto. " I have had two weeks to prepare for this game and I am raring to get out there and show people what I can do.

"I feel I have a lot to prove. The World Cup hasn't gone exactly how I would have liked it to, personally.

"To be in a final is exceptional for the side but I feel I have a point to prove to myself and to everyone. To get the opportunity to do that in a final is a special chance.

"It was getting to me that I could finish this World Cup having not shown people what I can do on the biggest stage.

"I played in three of the four pool games and it wasn't until the knockout stage that we showed the character and the ability of what we have got within the squad."

Ashton revealed the decision to plump for Cueto ahead of Hipkiss had been a tough one: "As with every week, we discuss every position - and it was a pretty close call," he said.

"It was the fact Mark has played a lot of international rugby in the back three, and we expect a fair old aerial bombardment on Saturday.

"We have played better since the first South Africa game, the squad is a lot closer. Every game has been a knockout game for us since then, and we've won every one.

"We had a team meeting on the Saturday morning after that game, and every single player was involved. It was a very open and honest meeting."

There are four survivors from England's 2003 World Cup final-winning side in the starting line-up - Phil Vickery, full-back Jason Robinson, fly-half Jonny Wilkinson and lock Ben Kay.

Captain Vickery said: "We are under no illusions, but we have faced this type of situation every week since the Samoa game.

"As one of the more experienced players, I know what it took last time (to win the World Cup). If it wasn't for Jonny, we still wouldn't have done it. Ultimately, we have to work hard.

"We haven't come this far to go out on Saturday and think about past experiences. This team is here to make its own history, and we won't leave anything in the changing room."

ENGLAND: J Robinson (unattached); P Sackey (Wasps), M Tait (Newcastle), M Catt (London Irish), M Cueto (Sale Sharks); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), A Gomarsall (Harlequins); A Sheridan (Sale Sharks), M Regan (Bristol), P Vickery (Wasps, capt), S Shaw (Wasps), B Kay (Leicester), M Corry (Leicester), L Moody (Leicester), N Easter (Harlequins). Replacements: G Chuter (Leicester), M Stevens (Bath), L Dallaglio (Wasps), J Worsley (Wasps), P Richards (London Irish), T Flood (Newcastle), D Hipkiss (Leicester).

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