Cullen returns to scene where he ran ref and rivals ragged

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 March, 2009, 12:00am

It will be a walk down memory lane for Christian Cullen as he watches Gordon Tietjens and New Zealand attempt to defend their Hong Kong Sevens title this weekend.

The famed All Black fullback has returned to the place where it all began, and was in a reflective mood when the South China Morning Post caught up with him. Cullen said looking back he might have done a few things differently in his illustrious career, but wouldn't change an iota of how it all began for him right here at Hong Kong Stadium.

'I don't think it was the same stadium in 1995. They have done it up. But it was here that I got my chance. Titch [Tietjens] gave me my chance,' says Cullen, recalling how he stormed into the limelight in Hong Kong.

Widely regarded as the greatest fullback to don an All Blacks jersey, Cullen was still a raw teenager when Tietjens brought him to Hong Kong. It was the start of a remarkable journey for one of the most skilled players to come out of New Zealand.

'Titch was an amazing bloke. He had the special ability to pick young guys out from the blue and give them a crack. He was unafraid. He first brought me here in 1995 and I played one game,' said the 33-year-old Cullen, who is in town on 'corporate work'.

'My parents used to come to the Sevens and I used to hear how great it was. When I came, I couldn't believe how big it was. I returned in 1996 and that was a big year for me. I played every game, scored a few tries and won the final. That has been one of the highlights of my career.'

Well, actually it was more than 'a few tries'. Cullen scored a record 18 tries, including seven in one match (against Sri Lanka), and accumulated a record 136 points.

'How can you compare a BMW and a Morris Minor,' was the plaintive response at the time from Sri Lankan manager Maiya Gunesekera. 'Everything went according to plan, New Zealand's plan.'

One person who did all the running in that match was Hong Kong referee Iain Valentine. Now the chief executive of the Hong Kong Golf Association, Valentine recalled how Cullen left him out of pocket.

'I remember that game very well,' said Valentine. 'I remember his first try. It was an interception and a length-of-the-field try. Those days, if the referee wasn't in the 22 [metre line] when a try was scored, you got fined. I was nowhere near the 22.

'I told Cullen, 'You just got me fined, can you slow it down a bit'. Then when he scored the second try, under the posts, he waited until I got there and said, 'Is it OK, sir, if I score now?' He was absolutely magical,' Valentine added.

Cullen's classic sidestep and bold vision enabled him to singlehandedly lift New Zealand to the title. Jonah Lomu, who the previous year had won the Best and Fairest Player award, was not even needed. Cullen grabbed that accolade for himself.

His dazzling performance saw him being proclaimed as the next big thing in New Zealand rugby. And he lived up to that promise as he was selected as an All Black later that year and marked his debut against Samoa with a hat-trick.

It was the start of a 58-test career spanning eight years during which he scored a then-record 46 tries for the All Blacks that has since been surpassed by Doug Howlett.

But it has not all been a bed of roses for Cullen. He has had his fair share of battles with officialdom. He played in only one World Cup, in 1999 - used by John Hart out of position at centre - and was controversially left out of the 2003 squad after not seeing eye-to-eye with John Mitchell.

That left him with no option but to pursue a career overseas with Munster at the relatively young age of 27. He retired two years ago from international rugby, beset with injuries and perhaps a trifle disillusioned.

But Cullen is not bitter, although he says in hindsight he might have done things a little bit differently - like going overseas earlier.

'I could have gone to Japan or Ireland maybe a little bit earlier. That would have helped me financially,' Cullen said. 'But for me it wasn't just about the money. All I wanted to do was play for the All Blacks. Money was never a motivating factor.'

Which brought up the subject of Dan Carter and the New Zealand Rugby Football Union's decision to permit the All Blacks flyhalf to take a sabbatical and play in France.

Cullen is against it and warned that it could set a 'dangerous' precedent. He also believed it could kill the game back home.

'Personally, I think it is a dangerous move to give players sabbaticals. Who do you give sabbaticals to? Should it only be Dan Carter? What if Richie McCaw, Ali Williams or Ma'a Nonu say they also want to go overseas and make money?

'I'm an old sort of traditionalist player who played for the jersey. I don't like the idea of being a mercenary and coming back and just playing for the All Blacks, and then going back again. It will kill the game back home.'

Cullen said the South Africa Rugby Union had got it right by insisting that Boks take part in the Currie Cup.

'That is their main competition and they don't want to kill it. But in New Zealand you get 2,000 people watching an NPC [provincial] game, because there are no All Blacks playing. New Zealand is stocked with good players, but I don't want to watch an NPC player, I would rather watch the Dan Carters and the Richie McCaws slug it out,' Cullen said.

The inevitable question has to be popped. Will New Zealand win the World Cup in 2011 at home? Is it the All Blacks time at last? Cullen smiles.

'Mate, the last 10 years has been New Zealand's time. Every World Cup, we have had the best players, but not necessarily the best team. In 1999, we had the best players, but got beaten by France at Twickenham. It was a similar story in 2003 and 2007, too.

'There are five or six teams who, if they have a good day, can beat each other. France always seem to play well against the All Blacks. If they meet us in the quarter-finals, it is their final. We didn't play badly in '99, they just had a great game. But the All Blacks like playing at home,' he reminds us.

Since dazzling the crowd in 1996, this is Cullen's first trip back to Hong Kong. He says he will miss the buzz of being a player this weekend.

'When the boys come out of that tunnel and run down the sidelines with the crowd cheering them on, you miss that,' Cullen said. 'I don't miss the hard training under Titch, but you miss the buzz when the referee blows his whistle and it's kick-off time. You miss the buzz of scoring tries.'

Valentine and Sri Lanka's class of '99 can vouch for that.

Sevens superman to test match giant

1. Born in Paraparaumu, New Zealand, in 1976

2. Cullen broke through in a big way at the 1996 Hong Kong Sevens, where he ran in a record 18 tries

3. In his 58-test career, Cullen scored 46 tries, a mark since surpassed by Doug Howlett. He was just as prolific in Super rugby with the Crusaders. Between 1996 and 2003 he ran in 56 tries in 85 appearances, bettered only by Howlett and Australia's Joe Roff

4. The 1999 World Cup proved a major disappointment for Cullen, with the All Blacks crashing out in the semi-finals against France. Worse was to follow in 2003 when he was omitted from the squad

5. After moving to Munster in 2003 he made just 44 appearances in three years because of injuries to the shoulders and knees