The Rugby World Cup: Genius on the hoof

The Runner: Christian Cullen; Mark Evans anticipates a thrilling exhibition of a dazzling range of attacking skills
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THE STATISTICS don't capture the man - but they do put him in context. Aged 23, 35 Tests, 30 tries. If he carries on like this, and barring injury why shouldn't he, he will break every record in the book.

At 19 he was so precocious Laurie Mains wanted to pick him to tour with the All Blacks, but the NZRFU didn't allow more than 30 tourists in those days, so he stayed at home. No matter, because only one year later the boy from Paraparaumu burst on to the Test scene with seven tries in his first two international appearances.

If you have even the slightest interest in rugby, you'll know him: short hair, apparently slight, scorching pace, stepping off both feet, always looking to attack. Having initially broken through at the 1996 Hong Kong Sevens, he is now firmly established in the 15-man game.

This World Cup could be the occasion when Christian Cullen transcends his sport and becomes a bona fide superstar. And yet, in the true nature of sport, this particular year started so poorly. Last December he had an ankle operation, which meant that his early games in the Super 12 competition were, to put it politely, pretty low-key.

In a country where absolutely everything connected with rugby is examined with a ferocious intensity, this led to some ridiculously ill-informed comment. Had Cullen lost it? Would the blistering speed ever return?

To his credit, the All Black coach, John Hart, would have none of it and declared himself "not at all worried" as his man eased himself back to fitness. Hart's faith was well- placed, as the Wellington ace quickly returned to form.

At his best Cullen is that rare player, the one who creates an audible buzz of anticipation among the crowd as soon as the play comes his way. David Campese, Gerald Davies, Serge Blanco and Waisele Serevi (albeit in sevens) all had the same quality. None of them was the biggest of men: but their agility, footwork and ability to seemingly mesmerise defenders made them all stand out in the same way.

Everyone knows that guys like these can do real damage. When such men play against your team, half of you fears them, yet the other half of you desperately wants to see them perform. In another sporting sphere it is the same feeling that drove many thousands to watch George Best in his prime or ensured their early arrival at White Hart Lane to guarantee they did not miss Glenn Hoddle in the warm-up. A small number of athletes can take your breath away by exhibiting skills that are given to very few.

Put simply, as an attacking force the boy Cullen is, as they say, a bit special. Although primarily a full-back, his skill-set is so wide that he can play anywhere in the three- quarters. Given New Zealand's embarrassment of riches in the back three, with Wilson, Lomu and Umaga all available, coupled with the lack of a stone-cold selection certainty in the centre (ever since the demise of Frank Bunce), it seems more than likely that Hart will select the Hurricanes' hero in midfield. At only 82kg, he is light for a modern-day centre, but his wiry frame belies his strength - this is a guy who can bench-press 140kg, so the physical demands of his new position are well within his compass. His try-saving tackle when faced with the hefty Daniel Herbert driving towards the line this summer should put to rest any doubts about his overall defensive capabilities.

Much more interestingly the switch, if confirmed, will give him the opportunity to revive the increasingly lost art of creative centre three-quarter play. He could turn out to be the spiritual descendant of Jo Maso, Mike Gibson and Denis Charvet: a midfield maestro with a body-swerve rather than a body-slam. In an era when the crash-bang, directly confrontational style has become increasingly the norm, the prospect of Cullen engineering a classic outside break direct from a scrum or line-out is enticing.

The one area which might pose him a few problems is that of distribution. In his early games he had a tendency to hold on to the ball for too long. Given the power of the Lomu-Umaga combination and the subsequent need to release them, it will be fascinating to see whether he can add another dimension to his name by choosing wisely when it comes to either running or passing. If he can vary his game - not always quite so necessary when you are the best counter-attacking full-back in the world - then the All Blacks will win the World Cup and Cullen will become a star.