Awesome Kiwis unveil 'secret' weapon Cullen
New Zealand last night unveiled lethal weapon number two in the form of Christian Cullen as they began their title defence at the Cathay Pacific HongkongBank Sevens in awesome fashion.
Cullen, sporting the team's menacing skinhead look, scored a record seven tries as the defending champions crushed Sri Lanka 75-0 in the opening match of the tournament. It was a display that should warn all pretenders that the Kiwis are hell-bent on retaining their crown. The throne looks pretty impregnable considering the world's most feared rugby player, Jonah Lomu, did not have to move up from neutral gear. Lethal weapon Lomu was only required to win ball from the kick-off - a task which was easy against the smaller Sri Lankans. The crowd had only a glimpse of Lomu's trademark surging runs and that came late in the game when he scored the last of 11 tries, brushing off three opponents with consummate ease. But it was Cullen who stole the show. The Wellington and former New Zealand Colts fly-half is a visionary armed with an uncanny side-step: traits which help him use the wide open spaces in sevens to maximum effect.
And yesterday, he did it in style, touching down for a record seven tries in a game, more than half the number (11) he scored at the Punta del Este tournament in Uruguay in January which earned him the Most Valuable Player award. He is well on his way to achieving that accolade here, too. A man widely tipped to be the next All Black full-back, Cullen was the image of modesty.
'The ball seemed to come my way all the time. I was in the right place at the right time. It just happened that way,' said Cullen. 'Everyone in the team can do what I did.' They certainly have done what Cullen did to his shock of hair two days ago. A crew cut, army style, is the vogue among the Kiwis. 'We just thought we would streamline ourselves. It makes you run faster,' said Cullen.
So fast, that Sri Lanka were never in with a chance. 'How can you compare a BMW and a Morris Minor?' was the plaintive cry from the Sri Lankan camp. Their manager Dr Maiya Gunesekera said: 'Everything went according to plan . . . the New Zealand plan. They are probably the best sevens team. With Jonah Lomu it is like playing against nine players.' One person who did a lot of running was Hong Kong referee Iain Valentine, who bravely kept up with the torrid pace set by the favourites. New Zealand are all-out to score as many tries as they can in case of a countback of tries to decide the pool winners - a laughable prospect in their case. But coach Gordon Tietjens did not dismiss the possibility of his side facing harder times against their other opponents in Pool A, France and Japan. 'Games are going to get harder and we are conscious of the fact that this new format means we have to score more tries,' said a satisfied Tietjens afterwards.
The four-team, six-pool format means that every side plays an extra game this year. The pool winners enter the Cup competition accompanied by the best two second-placed teams. 'It was an excellent start. Generally the first game is the hardest. We had to get off to a start like this otherwise inconsistencies can creep into our game,' added Tietjens. Tietjens had nothing but praise for Cullen: 'He is a superb footballer and has been in outstanding form. He will play a big role at this tournament.' Cullen was a member of the Kiwi team last year but he played only one game, the first of the pool games. It is highly unlikely that Tietjens will keep him on the bench today and tomorrow as that would be suicidal to their hopes of notching up a hat-trick of Cup victories.
The team who can stop the Kiwis from completing a Cup hat-trick, Fiji were just as impressive in defeating Thailand 68-12. The Fijians arrived at the ground two hours before their game and ran a 'lap of honour' before the competition. It was most probably to settle the nerves of their seven new players and it must have done the trick as they scored 10 tries. Still, they were overshadowed by New Zealand.