Christian Cullen on his career and how the Lions will get on against the All Blacks

Matt Jones - Editor 22:50 03/06/2017
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Christian Cullen scored 46 tries in 58 Tests for New Zealand

Christian Cullen’s career can be aptly summed up by the name of the club team where he played the majority of his playing days.

The versatile former Wellington Hurricanes back was a destructive force of nature for both club and country, raining down 46 tries in just 58 Tests for the All Blacks.

That whirlwind figure puts him joint-second on the list of top New Zealand tryscorers alongside Joe Rokocoko and just three behind Doug Howlett. The full-back/winger is the ninth highest international tryscorer in history.

Cullen’s tries per cap record is better than both Howlett and Rokocoko. In fact his figure of 0.793 tries per game is only bettered by fellow Kiwi phenom Julian Savea (0.882, 45 tries in 52 Tests) and Japan’s Daisuke Ohata (1.190) and his ridiculous 69 tries in 58 Tests.

Considering those impressive stats, Cullen’s impact on world rugby was frenetic yet fleeting. It’s remarkable to think he only wore the coveted All Blacks jersey for six years (1996-2002).

The Paekakariki Express’ journey may have been brief but he certainly packed a lot into his 58 caps.

Who knows how many more tries and caps he would have earned had it not been for falling foul of brief All Blacks coach John Mitchell, who omitted Cullen from his 2003 Rugby World Cup squad.

Mitchell admitted he dropped Cullen and fellow icons Taine Randall and Andrew Mehrtens in order to get rid of the star syndrome that had developed after the onset of professionalism – the All Blacks finished third in Australia and Mitchell was sacked, after less than two years at the helm.

Rather than wait around or try to force his way into Mitchell’s plans, Cullen – much like a hurricane – decided instead to up sticks and go and cause chaos elsewhere, although his three-year spell in Ireland with Munster was blighted by injury.

Cullen only played for the All Blacks for six years

Cullen only played for the All Blacks for six years

“In 2003 when I went to Ireland I had a bit of an issue with the coach at the time,” Cullen, 41, recalls of his decision to leave the Land of the Long White Cloud in his prime – aged just 27.

“I would have loved to have finished my career there, but I didn’t see a pathway while he (Mitchell) was there. In my mind there was no way back into that team.

“I have no idea (what his issue was). He was a new coach, young, (perhaps) wanted to make his mark. He’s the head guy, he makes his decisions. You live and die by your decisions.

“It wasn’t just me, there was Taine Randall, Mehrtens, a few other blokes. It is what it is. Before the tour I never got picked so I knew while he was there, there was no chance.

“Alan Gaffney (ex-Munster coach) was in Australia and (Chris) Latham had pulled out of his contract so within two weeks I’d made my decision. It might have been better if I’d had longer to decide but I did what I had to do and get out of New Zealand and move on. Munster came up and I made a pretty quick decision.”

So significant was Cullen’s contribution that respected New Zealand journalist Wynne Gray inserted him at No9 on his list of the 100 greatest All Blacks – ahead of the likes of Mehrtens, Ian Jones, Jeff Wilson, Tana Umaga, Olo Brown, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Frank Bunce, Zinzan Brooke, John Kirwan and Wayne Shelford.

“That’s cool if he picks me,” Cullen tells Sport360° in typical laid-back Kiwi style.

“He’s watched a lot of rugby during his time as a reporter and I respect him as a writer, so it’s cool coming from him.

“But I know it’s very, very hard to compare eras and players. There’s certain players, Richie McCaw or Colin Meads, you could easily put up there. But a lot of players, you can’t compare.”

The two-time reigning world champions are in imperious form as they get set to enter the rugby’s most anticipated series – the visit of the British & Irish Lions.

Their Kiwi coach Warran Gatland brings them to New Zealand on the back of a first Lions series triumph in 16 years from Australia four years ago.

Cullen in action for the Hurricanes

Cullen in action for the Hurricanes

Memories, however, of a brutal 3-0 slaying at the hands of the All Blacks in 2005 will perhaps be just as fresh. And although Cullen expects the Lions to make it a closer contest 12 years on, he is predicting the same outcome.

“I think they have the players but, man, that tour is tough,” said Cullen as the Lions kick off their tour against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians in Whangarei today (kick-off 11:35 UAE time).

“All the franchise games are tough. It’s a long tour. Ireland have beaten New Zealand and England think they can beat New Zealand. Eddie Jones has said England should be No1 but you can say that when you don’t play them until 2018.

“They’ll come down with a lot of confidence but like always, can they gel? The Irish with the English, the English with the Welsh. Can they get that cohesion to beat an All Blacks side? I don’t know.

“I spoke to Zinney (Zinzan Brooke) and he reckons they can beat them in one Test and it will all come down to the third and a 2-1 Test series. Personally I think it will be a 3-0.

“I can see it being a close one, I can see the Lions getting close in a few but it will be a massive tour. They’ll have to bring two teams, Test and midweek.

“They’ll have confidence. If you look at Ireland, over the last five games they’ve played New Zealand they should have won three of them. In Dublin they missed the kick, they probably should have won in Christchurch when Dan Carter got the drop goal. The win in Chicago.

“They’re not a bad side but how many players will get picked in this team?

“In terms of the England contingent, how good are they? I don’t know. Ireland have played the number one team in the world and done pretty well, they’re a good side. But I don’t know how good England are.

“You’ve got to get a good coach, good players and gel them quickly. There’s a lot of games, it’s long and there’s no easy games. It’s not like you can roll in with a few nice easy mid-weekers, everyone will want to beat them.”

One reason for Cullen’s supreme confidence is how effortlessly the All Blacks have made the transition from losing a host of legends since their latest World Cup triumph in 2015.

Out went the most capped rugby international ever in Richie McCaw, followed by the highest points scorer in history, Dan Carter, as well as Keven Mealamu, Nonu and Smith.

Their record run of 18 wins (now held jointly with England) was ended in Chicago by a maiden defeat to Ireland last November yet their domination of customary rivals Australia, South Africa and Argentina continued as they steamrollered to a 14th Tri Nations/Rugby Championship success in the past 21 years.

“Playing wise I think we could cover them,” added Cullen.

“Obviously with McCaw and Mealamu, it’s the experience and leadership. The only worry was the midfield, where we lacked, with Ma’a and Conrad gone, but we haven’t really missed a beat. (Malakai) Fekitoa is a yes or no for me, but (Anton) Lienert-Brown came in and he’s been awesome. (Ryan) Crotty came in and he’s like the new Smith, just a solid player who does his job, while Brown is the more skillful player.

“I thought this would be a tough year losing all that experience, but I think the experience of the coaching staff has come through. They realised and knew they’d lose these players. They’ve built their experience and playing base up with Dane Coles, Sam Cane and all these boys who are not starters but have played 40-odd Tests.

“McCaw goes but Cane comes in and he’s had 40 Tests, he knows what’s going on. Beauden Barrett’s the same. Dan Carter goes and he jumps in. If Barrett goes, Sapoaga’s had a few Tests.”

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