Cuthbert's back on the big stage
By Andrew Baldock
Alex Cuthbert’s decision to turn his back on Wales could be vindicated by a clash with the man who replaced him in Warren Gatland’s line-up.
Cuthbert goes head to head with Liam Williams when ExeterChiefs clash with Saracens in the final of the Gallagher Premiership at Twickenham this weekend.
The powerful winger was 13 caps short of the 60-cap threshold to be considered for Wales selection under the policy for exiles when he signed a three-year deal to move to Devon from Cardiff Blues.
While Cuthbert is excluded from the Test arena, 2019 Grand Slam ace Williams doesn’t have the same problem despite having only 56 caps because he signed for Saracens before the WRU acted to prevent a player drain of stars to England and France.
Cuthbert admitted it was a “tough decision” to join Exeter after seven years at Cardiff Arms Park.
But he said: “I’d played all of my rugby in Wales and I’d enjoyed some fantastic times over the years but I felt I was at a stage in my career where I had to try something different.
“The challenge of going to Exeter and trying to prove myself in a new environment at the Chiefs was something that really appealed to me.”
Exeter boss Rob Baxter and backs coach Ali Hepher have a history of improving players, with a fourth successive appearance in the Premiership final showcasing their expertise.
“I liked what they had to say and where they said the club was looking to go in the future. I genuinely think I can get better,” said Cuthbert.
The 29-year-old’s Test career had tailed off in recent seasons from the giddy heights of 2013, when his two tries in the famous 30-3 triumph over Grand Slam-chasing England brought Wales the Six Nations title.
That summer he toured Australia with the Lions, playing in the first Test and scoring a stunning try as the Lions won.
Cuthbert featured for Wales as they reached the quarter-finals of the 2015 World Cup at the expense of hosts England, going out narrowly to South Africa thanks to Fourie du Preez’s winning try.
He later revealed he couldn’t face doing a lap of the field with his team-mates to thank the Welsh supporters after that game because he blamed himself for the try. It came amid a period of regular criticism from Wales supporters as his form dipped.
“I blamed myself straightaway,” Cuthbert told The Times in 2015. “I thought it was my fault.”
Reflecting on the toughest period in his career, Cuthbert added: “After every game I was getting so hard on myself. I was trying too hard.
“I was putting more pressure on myself, trying too hard, getting more frustrated. I kept saying to myself: ‘I know what I can do, I haven’t played 40-odd Tests for nothing’.”
His final Six Nations appearance resulted in more criticism from disgruntled supporters when he was deemed to be at defensive fault as England snatched the spoils late on.
Cuthbert touched down for Wales against Tonga in Auckland, New Zealand before bowing out of international rugby in the autumn 2017 win over Georgia in Cardiff.
His opening season with Exeter has been blighted by a knee injury, with only 10 appearances and two tries.
But Cuthbert has returned to action at the right time to impress Baxter and put himself in the reckoning to start against Saracens.
Cuthbert played a key role by using his strength to drive Sam Hill over for a try in the 42-12 demolition of Dan Biggar’s Northampton in their Premiership semi-final at Sandy Park to make Channel Five rugby pundit and former England international David Flatman’s Premiership dream semi-final team.
“I thought ‘Cuthy’ was particularly good, because often he made ground for us with no space and nowhere to go,” said Baxter of his player’s return to action.
Cuthbert said: “It’s a tough league, every week it’s like a cup final.”
Saracens will be slight favourites, with Williams having touched down for a try during their 44-19 demolition of Gloucester at Allianz Park.
He’s already picked up Six Nations and Champions Cup winners’ medals this campaign, losing just once in his 22 outings for club and country.
But Cuthbert will be doing his utmost to make sure his Wales rival’s magnificent season ends on something of a low and he caps a first year with Exeter on a high after making a bold decision to make a fresh start.