Rugby Union: Lure of the Cullen fields

'It's almost as if tacklers don't exist to him...his body language says I'm an All Black and I'm going to score'; Tim Glover looks at a player who manages to stand out in an outstanding team
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The Independent Online
It is typical that the player who inspired Christian Cullen is an Anglo-Irishman who emigrated to New Zealand to work as a policeman and play some rugby. The All Blacks recognised that John Gallagher, who had played for Blackheath and London Irish, was an attacking full-back of the highest order. Not that anybody in Britain had noticed.

Gallagher's career was transformed almost overnight as he fitted perfectly into the All Blacks side that won the inaugural World Cup in 1987. Cullen, then an 11-year-old spectator, said: "I used to watch him a lot and I just loved the way he'd hit the backline and glide right through. Nobody can touch him."

Ten years on and Gallagher and everybody else is admiring the work of a full-back who has raised the benchmark. Andre Joubert, the Springbok's full-back who was considered to be the bee's knees, said of Cullen: "I don't think it's a case of is he the best full-back in the world? He is. For an old man like me it's great to see a guy who is such a terrific mover.

"When you play against him you must put the ball out. If you don't he can be lethal. He has the ability to create space for himself as well as his team-mates. He's so fast and he can change direction so quickly."

There were the Invincibles of 1924-25 and now we have the Incomparables, a state of the art team in which Cullen has been programmed to run. When they opened their cyclonic tour at Llanelli a few weeks ago he scored four tries. It was his first non-international in an All Blacks jersey and his record had been 18 tries in 18 tests.

Brian Ashton, the Ireland coach who was at Stradey Park, worked on a strategy to stop Cullen when the All Blacks played the Irish at Lansdowne Road last week. "We tried to kick into areas from which we could anticipate his movements," Ashton said. "It revolved around a certain type of kick and a certain type of chase. The problem is that we also had Wilson and Osborne to worry about.

"Cullen can run riot. His game has changed even in the two years since he exploded on to the scene. He's more dynamic. His power, pace and elusive footwork make him ideal for modern rugby. Pound for pound he's more powerful than anybody I've every seen. When he runs at defenders he either glides past them or bounces off them. It's almost as if tacklers don't exist to him. He has a remarkable inner belief and his body language says I'm an All Black and I'm going to score."

Ireland succeeded in stopping Cullen scoring but lost the war 63-15. In a 21-minute spell, the All Blacks scored 34 points. "They moved up two or three gears," Ashton said. "It's the sort of thing we might do twice in a lifetime but to them it was a normal afternoon's work. It's a tall order to play this team and we won't be the last to concede 60 points."

One of Ashton's performance targets was a high tackle count and they put in more than ever, 150, 78 of them in the second half. "Because they keep the ball in play all the time it just shows the intensity required."

One of the first things Clive Woodward has noticed in his reign as England coach is that he has so few players at his disposal. By comparison, John Hart, his New Zealand counterpart, leads a charmed life. Not only has he a tightknit group but he's spoilt for choice in most positions. Take out Andrew Mehrtens and there's Carlos Spencer; take out Cullen and there's Todd Miller.

While Cullen was spreading the gospel around schools as a New Zealand rugby development officer, the 22-year-old Miller volunteered for two years missionary duty (unpaid) with the Mormon Church. "I'd never seen Christian play until this year," Miller said. "He's pretty amazing. I've got a long way to go before reaching his standards." The emerging England XV wouldn't think so. Miller scored three tries in helping to submerge them at Huddersfield in midweek.

When the All Blacks arrived in Britain, Miller and Cullen shared a room and anybody taping their conversation would come to the conclusion that the room was unoccupied. "We're both pretty quiet," Miller said.

Three years ago Cullen was at school in the village of Paekakariki, in the South of the North Island. His father works in a wall paper factory, his brother is a baker. Cullen, who scored seven tries in his first two internationals, three against Western Samoa and four against Scotland, has been called the Paekakariki Express and that must be some train. Does it ever stop?

It is not just that Cullen is very quick, or has an eye for the main chance, but he is very powerful. At 21, he is 5ft 10ins and just over 13st and can bench press almost twice his weight. Only the prop forwards at his team, the Wellington Hurricanes, can live with him.

"Christian is still learning, still emerging," Hart said. "He came in relatively untested and could have been perceived as a risk. But full- back gives him the best chance of expressing himself. I'm very happy if teams feel the need to test him out. I have no doubts over his defence." Probably because Cullen is permanently on attack alert.