All Blacks legend joins fellow hero Zinzan Brooke in Abu Dhabi

Matt Jones - Editor 07:45 24/01/2017
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Brooke, one of the trailblazers for ball-playing forwards, was back for a second year to help ME Touch promote the sport, while founder John Larkins was able to call upon the help of fellow All Black icon Cullen this time around.

Both spent the four days of the championship lending their expertise to rugby-mad youngsters in the capital, while also competing in the tournament’s pro-am alongside England’s Danny Willett and South Africa’s Branden Grace.

Cullen is New Zealand’s second top try-scorer of all time with 46, three behind Doug Howlett, but was brought up, near Wellington, on touch.

And he sang the praises of the sport and backed the work Larkins is doing promoting it in the Emirates and beyond.

“Growing up in Paekakariki I played touch from a young age,” said the 40-year-old who shone bright but briefly in 58 Tests for the All blacks from 1996-2002 before finishing his career with Munster in Ireland.

“All the locals played whatever age we were, from me aged 10 to older boys. We’d meet up on a Monday night and have a massive game of touch.

“For kids, it’s great. You don’t need to worry about contact or getting hurt. It’s great for your skills, vision, there’s everything you need for rugby apart from contact, which is what a lot of kids shy away from. The more they play it the better they’re going to be.”

Larkins, a fellow Wellington native, said Cullen was all too happy to help out this year.

“I’m working with the Abu Dhabi Sports Council to set up ambassadorial schemes like the one HSBC has,” said Larkins.

“We’re looking to get guys over here and they asked me about inviting guys who I know with touch rugby background and Culley came to mind. He was free, I told him about the UAE Touch background and he jumped at it.

“We’re both from near Auckland and he’s got a background in sevens too. Essentially it’s not a big difference between union, touch and sevens, and all three games have skills at their core.

“You still have to convince some clubs and schools here about the benefits of touch, but it’s a great introduction for full contact rugby, but it’s also a great sport in itself.”

Larkins says touch’s development from its difficult early days in the UAE and Gulf region has made huge progress, so much so that in the last year around 7,000 in Dubai played the sport.

He’s hoping Cullen will be back later in the year to promote the sport and ME Touch further, while he was able to combine his clinics at the golf with a new grassroots golf initiative that the Abu Dhabi Sports Council are also trying to get off the ground, Future Falcons.

“It’s about a crossover and helping kids get out and active, whatever the sport is that they play,” said Larkins.

“All sport is good sport, the whole idea is to get them out doing something whatever it is.

“If they want to go back to football or cricket, that’s fine, just as long as they’re out and being active. The key is giving them an opportunity at grassroots level that’s not cost prohibitive.”

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