Christian Cullen's Test career was comparatively short-lived. But the All Black left a lasting impression as one of the greatest players to pull on the full-back jersey
Major teams: Manawatu, Wellington, Hurricanes, Munster
Country: New Zealand
Test span: 1996-2002
Test caps: 58 (56 starts)
Test points: 236 (46T, 3C)
Rugby’s Greatest: Christian Cullen
Like a lightning bolt, Christian Cullen flashed dramatically into the rugby firmament and then disappeared, his Test career ending when he was only 26. It was time enough to imprint himself on the game as possibly the best attacking full-back in history. Only Doug Howlett (49) has scored more Test tries than Cullen (46) for the All Blacks.
His career is all the more celebrated because of his origins. Growing up in Paekakariki, a seaside town 25 miles north of Wellington, he attended Kapiti College, which had no great rugby tradition. Cullen was a big fish in a small pond, making his first XV debut at 15 and becoming a goal-kicking centre.
In 1996, at the age of 20, he burst into the nation’s consciousness with his stunning Man of the Tournament showing at the Hong Kong Sevens. He set records for the most tries (18) and points (136), coach Gordon Tietjens calling it the greatest sevens performance he had seen.
Cullen’s career exploded. On his Test debut against Samoa, he was cut in half by a Brian Lima tackle but bounced up to score a hat-trick. In his next game, against Scotland, he beat seven defenders for the first of his four tries. “Lomu is the devil we know,” said Scotland captain Rob Wainwright, “Cullen is the one we’re learning about.”
Cullen’s gliding running style, with no pumping of the arms and no obvious exertion, was one of the great sights in the game. Although he could step off both feet, he frequently beat players by deception, and his timing into the line was exceptional.
Initially prone to tucking the ball under one arm – a fault coach John Hart addressed by getting Cullen to carry a ball round the hotel – the man dubbed the ‘Paekakariki Express’ became a try-scoring machine. Ten of his final try haul came against the Springboks.
By the time he faced France in Marseilles in 2000, he had become one of the elite few to play 50 consecutive Tests, after Willie John McBride, Gareth Edwards, Sean Fitzpatrick and Joe Roff. That run included a few caps at wing and, during RWC 1999, at centre when Hart juggled his rich outside-back resources.
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Sadly for Cullen, he fell out of favour with new All Blacks coach John Mitchell and he upped sticks to Munster. His career fizzled out in 2007 after a succession of injuries.
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