Rugby Union: Devil in Baa-Baa clothing

Paul Trow finds Christian Cullen keeping his dazzling feet on the ground
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The Independent Online
Shy stubble-headed and smiling. They say first impressions can be misleading, but what you see with Christian Cullen is what you get ... off the field, anyway.

On it, though, as England will find out when he plays for the All Blacks by another name - the New Zealand Barbarians - at Twickenham on Saturday, it is a rather different story. When he pulls on his rugby jersey this is one Christian who transforms instantly into a lion. If Jonah Lomu was the rugby sensation of 1995, then his fellow Kiwi has had an equally startling impact on 1996.

Eight months ago Cullen was just one of many gifted 20-year-olds hoping for a bright tomorrow. Then came the Hong Kong Sevens and his life changed forever. Cullen made the colony's annual festival of spectacular rugby his own as New Zealand simply swept aside every challenger. Combining Lomu-like speed with the elasticity of Houdini, he ran in 18 tries - seven in one game. Most memorably, though, he set up the decisive score in a closely-fought final with the holders Fiji when he beat four men behind his own line.

"I love sevens because you have so much space and you get so many chances to have a free run with the ball," Cullen explained after the New Zealand Barbarians touched down in Britain. Back home, after further radiant Sevens displays in Japan, Dubai and Uruguay, the clamour for his elevation to international status in the bigger game became irresistible. So following a respectable Super 12 campaign for Wellington, he was duly selected at full-back against Western Samoa and the fairy tale began.

His debut yielded a hat-trick of tries, and he went one better in his next outing a week later against Scotland, prompting the visiting captain Rob Wainwright to comment: "Lomu is the devil we know; Cullen is the devil we're finding out about." In less than three months Christian the devil won 10 caps (five of them against the world champions South Africa) scored nine tries and only once finished on the losing side.

But despite this remarkable entrance on to the world stage, he remains quiet and unassuming, giving the impression that he would react to misfortune with the same modest shrug of the shoulders with which he has greeted his success.

"It all hit me quite quickly after returning from Hong Kong," said Cullen, who plays his first game on British soil against the North at Huddersfield this afternoon. "It blew me away, really. It was tough at the start, but you get used to it. Hong Kong boosted my confidence, yet international rugby was a big step up. I'm really looking forward to Saturday - they tell me Twickenham's an incredible place and to walk out on the pitch there will be awesome. I've seen players like Jeremy Guscott and Will Carling on television but I don't really know much about the other England boys.

"I suppose I was a bit scared of rubbing shoulders with All Blacks like Sean Fitzpatrick and Michael Jones when I came into the team, but they've been really good to me and helped me a lot. There's been a bit of teasing, but it's all good fun."

Only two years ago Cullen was still at school in his home village of Paekakariki, in the south of the North Island. He was born into a rugby family and took up the game when he was just five. His father, who works in a wallpaper factory, had his playing career ended by injury, and his older brother Shane has now also given up rugby to concentrate on his job as a baker. But turning out for Shane's side alongside boys who were at least two years older than him quickly taught Cullen the basics of rugby.

After leaving school, he moved north to Manawatu, where he was employed by the local rugby union to go into schools to spread the gospel to a new generation of five-year-olds. He studied for a sports diploma and played second-division rugby for Manawatu, who were more than happy to release him to first-division Wellington for the Super-12. Due to the demands and rewards of the open game, Cullen has now put his academic career on hold, and he has also acquired an agent. "I've had lots of offers since Hong Kong, and it's all part of the job, but things have got a bit hectic and you have to turn some people down," he said.

"I'm really enjoying life though I don't know how long I'll keep playing. You can go out tomorrow and break a leg and be out for the rest of your life, so if you're playing well you might as well keep going. A lot of people stop me in the street nowadays, but they don't bother me in Paekakariki. They've already got my autograph so there's no point in getting another, is there?"