Rugby Union: Cullen running in the shadows of a legend

David Daniels in Cape Town talks to the All Black who is the last line of defence - and the first port of call in attack
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The Independent Online
Christian Cullen would pass almost unnoticed in any crowd. Small in stature, quiet in demeanour, New Zealand's newest full-back has never wanted to be the centre of attention.

Cullen prefers life in the slow lane. Anonymity as an All Black, however, is an absolute impossibility, as the 20-year-old from the farming back- blocks of Manawatu has discovered in the past five months.

Superstar status does not sit easily on his shoulders but Cullen is coming to terms with his changing lifestyle with the steely assurance that has catapulted him, in a few hectic weeks, to the pinnacle of international rugby, alongside the likes of Jonah Lomu.

His stunning displays in the Hong Kong Sevens in March gave a sneak preview of his talent, and in the six Tests that Cullen has played since his impressive man-of-the-series performance in Hong Kong, no one, least of all a discerning New Zealand public, has been disappointed. A return of eight international tries does not even begin to tell the whole story. There is much, much more to Cullen than that.

Andrew Mehrtens, whose running and kicking skills at outside-half have almost relegated his predecessor, and linchpin of the All Blacks since 1987, Grant Fox, to the forgotten ranks, has not been surprised with the way Cullen has coped with Test rugby. "Christian may be a quiet guy but no one should imagine for a moment that he lacks self-belief," he said. "He is, in fact, a very confident fellow, and that's why he hasn't struggled to make the big step into the international game.

"He has many attributes, not least of all his pace. That gets him noticed but I wouldn't rate that as his most potent weapon. Indeed, he has so much going for him that it's hard to pick out a particular strength. He is very courageous, and at full-back you need to be brave. His ball handling is exceptional, but if there was one thing I had to highlight it would be his unpredictability.

"He is a very daring player. He's prepared to try anything, any time. That makes him a handful for any side, and he's almost impossible to contain.

"That makes my job a lot easier. Knowing I have guys like him and Jeff Wilson floating around on the outside means I can try things, too, knowing they'll be there to get on the end of any move. That really does give us an extra cutting edge, and I think we've become an even better team since Christian came into the side."

Cullen wins his seventh cap in today's clash with South Africa in Cape Town in the final match of the Tri-Nations series. The prospect of that match and the up-coming three-Test series against the reigning world champions is one that Cullen relishes.

"These matches are the ultimate test for both me and the rest of the team," Cullen said. "So far I've only played one Test away from New Zealand, when we beat Australia in Brisbane a couple of weeks ago.

"Coming on this tour is a big step for me. In the week that we've been over here so far, I've started to realise the importance of being an All Black.

"When I first got into the team I had to pinch myself sometimes to realise I was playing alongside some of my boyhood idols. I was in primary school when people like Sean Fitzpatrick and Zinzan Brooke first got into the New Zealand team. They were my heroes, so it took me a while to really believe that I was playing in the same side as them.

"Now this tour has given me the chance to establish my reputation at international level. I intend to make the most of my chance. Things have gone so well for me in the past few months that it's hard to believe what I've already achieved. Scoring three tries on my debut against Western Samoa was an incredible way to start and the four tries I got against Scotland in the next match gave me an even bigger buzz. I suppose it was fairytale stuff, but that kind of start gave me the inner confidence to try different things out on the pitch.

"That's not something I set out to do deliberately. I just play off the cuff, and if I see a chance to try something unusual then I'll go for it. I'm not afraid to make a mistake."

Cullen has made precious few of those at international level so far. Francois Pienaar and his South African side will shortly bear testimony to that.

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