Cullen sees much of himself in prodigy O'Donnell
The clock spun back to 1996 for Christian Cullen when he watched Declan O'Donnell strut his stuff in the all black strip. And he has some words of advice for the new kid on the block - do the hard yards first and try not to get lost in the system.
Cullen could almost be watching himself take that first step towards a meteoric career which ended with 58 caps as a winger or fullback for the All Blacks during which time he scored 46 tries.
'Yes, this is where it all began for me,' reminisced Cullen, who played for the Asia Pacific Barbarians in the Hong Kong Football Club Tens during the week. 'I made my name at the Hong Kong Sevens that year and it pretty much helped me for I made the All Blacks after that.'
Cullen scored 18 tries in the 1996 tournament and went on to be named the Best and Fairest Player as New Zealand completed a hat-trick of Cup victories. He was part of the squad in 1995, but spent most of his time on the bench.
'I did my time in sevens. The year before I shot to fame, I came to Hong Kong, played one game and sat out the rest. But in 1996, someone got injured and I got my opportunity,' Cullen said.
'It's really a funny thing the way rugby goes in New Zealand. Young guys come through and a lot of them expect if they do something great, they should be straight in. But there is a lot of hard work to be done until you get to a certain point.
'I spent three or four years with the sevens squad. It was the same with Jonah [Lomu], where we both played sevens for a couple of years before moving on,' Cullen said.
The red-haired and red-booted O'Donnell is widely acclaimed as the best thing to come out of New Zealand in recent times, and is tipped to follow in the footsteps of Lomu and Cullen. O'Donnell was unearthed by Gordon Tietjens a few months ago in a club tournament in Waikato and is now being rated as a future All Blacks winger.
'Declan is young, and if he carries on going the way he has done so far, there is every chance he can go on to be an All Black. But there are a lot of young kids in New Zealand who have got the ability, and most get lost in the system or don't have the commitment needed,' Cullen said.
'He is a big and solid, and he's got pace. But guys like him can get lost in the system if they get taken out of this environment too early,' Cullen said. 'He is a Waikato boy and he is probably not going to get too much game time up that way. It would better suit him if he stays in the sevens for a couple of years, instead of taking up the first offer that comes his way.'
The similarities between Cullen and O'Donnell will be frightening for opponents. Both have a sidestep to die for and pace to burn. Or at least Cullen, 35, did in his heyday.
You get the feeling that if he could step into a time machine, a younger Cullen would arrive on the scene in the next couple of years, hoping to win a place in Tietjens' squad for the 2016 Olympics. He says that's another reason why O'Donnell should bide his time in sevens, instead of rushing headlong in search of a Super 15 contract.
'Even though the importance of sevens is rising, I still feel young players will always go in search of a Super rugby contract as that is where they will earn money.
'But still with the Olympics coming up, a guy like Declan should weigh up his options. He is young and has time on his side, and he should think carefully,' Cullen said.
'I remember playing at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur when we won the gold. There was a huge buzz being in the village and seeing all the superstars from other sports. It will only be bigger at the Olympics.'
Cullen retired four years ago and has not played much since, not with having to raise a young family - two boys and a girl aged between six months and 2?years - as well as doing 'bits and pieces' in Wellington where he lives.
Before arriving in Hong Kong to turn out for the Asia Pacific Barbarians, he played in a charity match in Brisbane where the Classic All Blacks took on the Classic Wallabies to raise funds for the Christchurch earthquake victims.
'I got lucky and scored one try,' smiled Cullen. But luck never had anything to do with his career. It was all down to hard work and dedication, something which O'Donnell will do well to remember as he looks forward to his own journey of self-discovery.