Country boy runs wild at heart

David Daniels reports on the latest All Black wonder of the rugby world
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The Independent Online
His head swathed in a mud-stained bandage, the Silver Fern splattered with blood. There could be no doubt: Christian Cullen was every inch an All Black. In the mud and sweeping rain of Athletic Park, Wellington,the full-back stalked the backfield with panther-like elegance. A wounded predator on the prowl in a new domain, linking in terrifying unison with the wingmen Jonah Lomu and Jeff Wilson.

After three Test appearances and a haul of seven tries, Cullen had already been acclaimed as the finished article. His achievements in those build- up games against Western Samoa and Scotland were remarkable enough, but the second tier of international rugby was one thing. What would he make of the premiership? Enter Athletic Park.

Playing against Australia in the opening game of the inaugural Tri-Nations Championship would surely be the new recruit's acid test. Cullen took it in his ever-quickening stride. Even an early head wound could not stop the latest All Black great rolling off the conveyor belt behind Lomu, Josh Kronfeld and Andrew Mehrtens. The ugly gash was never going to stop the kid his family call Kinny.

The Wallabies, backtracking desperately in the quagmire, could not control him. That surprised few, least of all his father, Chris. "I never had any doubts that Christian would become an All Black. I remember him winning a rugby trophy as a little kid of seven, and from that moment he set his heart on playing for New Zealand. Even though he only went to a small school and played just third- division college rugby, he still got there. He's living proof that you can get to the top as long as you're determined to go for it."

The 20-year-old from the rural Manawatu, three hours by tractor from the nation's capital, Wellington, signalled his imminent arrival in the top flight when he was named player of the tournament after New Zealand had won the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Sevens in April for the third successive year. Cullen scored seven tries in one match and became the first player to top 100 points in the competition. His semi-final hat-trick demolished England and set up a 19-17 final win over Fiji - his break leading to the deciding try.

Another scoring treble, this time on his full Test debut in the 51-10 victory over the Samoans at Napier, was followed by a four-try return as the All Blacks slaughtered Scotland, 62-31, in Dunedin. Cullen did miss out in the 36-12 second Test win against the Scots in Auckland, but last week in the murk of Wellington he dived in to score his eighth international try as the Australians subsided to a record 43-6 defeat.

Next Saturday in Christchurch, Cullen faces the world champions, South Africa, in the decisive match of the southern hemisphere title race. The Springboks know what to expect after the Super 12 series, when Cullen's electrifying pace and storming runs boosted the Wellington Hurricanes. South Africa's own brilliant full-back Andre Joubert explained: "Christian is some player and he'll get even better. I like the way he can side- step at pace off either foot. We will have to watch him closely. He's an extremely dangerous guy."

The Australian coach, Greg Smith, was more reserved in his praise: "Cullen is an exceptional talent, a gifted individual, but he still has much to learn. He did some good things in the Super 12 game against New South Wales, scoring a great try, but he also did some pretty ordinary things, too. I'm sure he will improve, though. Experience could make him a complete player."

Cullen is indifferent to criticism: "I've always wanted to be an All Black. Nothing is going to take that away from me. All my life I have worked with that goal in mind. At school it was all I thought about. I didn't have any time for study or homework. I was always playing rugby. Anyway, schoolwork was never my strong point. Playing for New Zealand means everything but the impact of being selected for the All Blacks for the first time didn't hit me straight away. It was only when we started training that I suddenly realised I was one of the boys. Being an All Black is an awesome feeling." Cullen is already getting used to the idea. South Africa and the rest of world rugby may just take a little longer. About seven days, actually.