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'A magnificent sight': Christian Cullen was a divine fullback

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Roar Guru
18th November, 2021
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It would be easy to bore you all with the stats and background of Christian Mathias Cullen, when all you must do is watch his greatest long-range tries on You Tube.

What a magnificent sight he was in full flow, and I mean ‘flow’. Because that is how he ran, like the optimal athlete he was. Cullen ran with such a fluid, stressless action that he lulled the opposition into believing he was at full pace and then he would flick the switch and simply gobble up the ground.

I’m not a biomechanics expert, but his style was quite unique and was more like the pacer named after him, “Christian Cullen”. It wasn’t a furious, pumping knees style that you see with most wingers or fullbacks, but a relaxed, tranquil gait.

Compare John Kirwan and Cullen and you will see the strenuous, pained look on Kirwans’s face, with the knees pumping in contrast to Cullen’s serene, calm motion that rewarded him with many magnificent tries.

Kirwan scored one, maybe two, exceptional long-range tries but Cullen scored at least five that were wonderfully dreamlike. I’m not disparaging Kirwan in any way as he was one of the All Black greats, but Cullen’s electrifying pace and sidestep was quite uncommon.

The effect of watching him at his absolute peak is to view someone who was almost divine in nature and gifted with extraordinary powers. Can words do him justice? Watch the videos!

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I would suggest that it would not be unanimous which of the long-range tries was the best. There are five tries I have assembled for you to decide:

•1996 vs NSW Waratahs for Hurricanes
•1997 vs Australia for All Blacks
•1997 vs Argentina for All Blacks
•2000 vs Bulls for Hurricanes
•2002 vs Italy for All Blacks

I would narrow it down to the Waratahs and Australia in 1996 and 1997 respectively as the top two, and from there, good luck deciding!

These tries typify everything great about the fullback: the sheer speed, the brilliant sidestep, the ability to slip out of tackles and the confidence to back himself to score these tries. Watch the one against Australia and view how quickly he moves over the ground with extraordinary leg speed. There is probably not a single player in rugby history who could have or did score tries of a similar nature.

So, if you have finished watching those videos, you may like to know a little more about Mr Cullen.

He was born in 1976 in Paraparaumu, just north of Wellington. Christian attended Kapiti College and was the youngest of three children. As with most prodigiously talented youngsters, he stood out at school and was selected in the New Zealand Secondary Schools team in 1993 and 1994.

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After school in 1994, he made eight appearances for Horowhenua-Kapiti, then joined Manawatu for 15 games. Christian played for the New Zealand Colts in 1995 and they won a tournament in Argentina.

An illustrious career with the Hurricanes followed, with 85 matches. He made his debut in the first-ever Super 12 game against the Blues in 1996.

His wonderful skills were fully on show in the 1996 World Sevens in Hong Kong where he scored 18 tries in the tournament, including seven in one match! Coach Gordon Tietjens called it “the greatest sevens performance he had seen”.

Cullen was later named in the Magnificent Seven, a compilation of the greatest sevens players seen in Hong Kong over the four decades of the tournament. Also included were such notables as Jonah Lomu, David Campese and Eric Rush.

David Campese of the Wallabies in action during a Rugby Union test match between Wales and the Australian Wallabies at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales. Australia won 28-9.

(Getty Images)

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If a bigger squad had been selected to go to Europe in 1995, he may well have become an All Black then. He did not have long to wait, however, and at the age of 20 was selected for the All Blacks in 1996 after gaining attention from the Sevens.

A prodigious try-scoring career was kickstarted with seven tries in his first two Tests against Samoa and Scotland. His debut Test – as a 20-year-old against Samoa in Napier in 1996 – proved challenging but not for obvious reasons, he said.

“I had just come off the sevens [circuit] which was helpful, because [Eric] Rush was there, Jonah [Lomu] was there … those boys were in the ABs. For me, a young kid from Paekakariki, it was quite intimidating. When we were coming through it was still a lot of that old-school mentality. You had to earn respect and work your way up.”

Yes, a star was born.

In 1997, after recovering from a knee injury, Christian scored 12 tries in 12 Tests for the All Blacks and 11 tries in ten games for the Hurricanes. Even though the All Blacks had a shocking year in 1998, losing five consecutive games, Cullen still scored four tries in seven matches. He then won a gold medal in Sevens at the Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games.

Then life got interesting for Christian Cullen at the 1999 Rugby World Cup, with five matches in a position he did not prefer. Players will always say they will play anywhere to get a game, but deep down I believe it is not a desired thought.

The All Blacks had back riches the envy of most countries with Jonah Lomu and Tana Umaga on the wings and Jeff Wilson at fullback. This meant room had to be found for Cullen at centre, in hindsight not such a great move.

Rugby World Cup, England v New Zealand, Jonah Lomu of New Zealand heads towards the try line

Jonah Lomu (Photo by Mark Leech/Offside/Getty Images)

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“There are a few things in my career I would’ve loved to have done. The [1999] World Cup, playing at centre wasn’t my favourite position. I would have loved to go in and play fullback,” Cullen told The New Zealand Herald in 2018.

Another Rugby World Cup exit entered into the records.

Cullen’s career was about to enter troubled waters after suffering a serious knee injury in 2001 and being declared dropped by coach John Mitchell for an end-of-year tour. This was the beginning of a tumultuous relationship with Mitchell, who also had not endeared himself to the NZ rugby public.

In a biography in 2003 written by John Matheson, Cullen sparked attention with his criticism of John Mitchell. On a high note, in 2003 he brought his Super Rugby try-scoring tally to 56, which was a record at the time. In another digression he found his 1/64th Māori was enough ancestry to qualify him for the NZ Māoris, which became a controversial issue.

Cullen’s abbreviated career was coming to an end after he was left out of the 2003 World Cup squad. This decision caused much angst within rugby supporters who felt as emotionally about it, as they had when Wayne ‘Buck’ Shelford was dumped, especially when players like Leon McDonald and Ben Blair were the coach’s preferred options!

There were reservations from some who declared Cullen’s positional play was astray! A rather pitiful excuse. His dropping did seem untimely at the relatively young age of 27.

Christian Cullen is tackled by Krybauw Otto

(Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images)

Christian finished the season for Wellington and the supporters showed their appreciation to him with a standing ovation in his final game. He was invited to play for Munster in Ireland at the end of 2003 and left with an apparent shoulder injury which only worsened, resulting in an injury-impacted time with the club.

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In 2007, at the age of 31, Cullen announced his retirement from all rugby, a decision he now believes was the right call. With no cartilage left in his knee and shoulder injuries, the consequences for later life were seriously considered.

Most of Christian Cullen’s records and achievements are in the try-scoring department, including the second highest try-scorer in Tri Nations history and the first player to score a try in every Tri Nations Test in one season. At the time of retirement, he was the All Blacks’ leading try scorer with 46, which was overtaken by Doug Howlett. Cullen scored over 150 tries while playing in New Zealand.

He played 50 consecutive Tests and said playing with Jonah Lomu was a particular highlight of his career. A standard bred pacer was named after Christian Cullen and became one of New Zealand’s best, winning 22 of his 31 starts.

He is married with four children. Post-rugby, he has worked in property and spent time as a Sky Sport analyst in New Zealand.

As an interesting note, John Mitchell’s son Daryl, who is a current Black Caps player, was a huge Cullen fan growing up and was upset at his father’s decision to drop Cullen!

Christian Cullen may have some regrets from his rugby career, some of which were out of his control anyway. Yes, it may have ended prematurely, but to his supporters around the world he will always be remembered as one of, if not the greatest fullback to have ever played the game.

Young kids used to dream of scoring long-distance tries like what Cully scored. He had the gift of speed but knew how to use it to score many scintillating tries. He played the game the way it should be played, with daring and excitement. An excitement machine.

How is that video watching going? Decided on his best try?

Christian Mathias Cullen, a huge rugby favourite of mine.

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