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Humble Kiwi has a soft spot for SA

Submitted by on Saturday, 20 June 2009No Comment
Humble Kiwi has a soft spot for SA

Former Sevens, Super 12 and international fullback Christian Cullen insists on sharing the credit for his prolific try-scoring

Apparently you have a brother and sister who are twins and your brother also played rugby?

Yes – I think when we were at school he was much better than me. But he wanted to do other things, so gave up when he was young. I don’t think everyone is cut out to put in the sacrifices necessary to make it to international level.

On your debut against Samoa you scored three tries for the All Blacks and four tries in the next match against Scotland. You must have thought international rugby was easy?

I was lucky as I was put into a team that was a pretty good side; I took over Glen Osborne’s position. So yeah, the first two tests were great and then we came crashing down to earth in the second test against Scotland. Maybe a good thing, because as we all know international rugby is not easy. In fact it’s bloody hard (laughs).

There are stories that you are very strong and you used to out bench-press the rest of the All Black team?

On a weight to strength ratio I was. At the time I was about 84 kg and I could bench (press) about 148 kg which I suppose is up there. Dad had a little gym in his garage at home and when I was growing up I used to love going in and doing that sort of stuff. And when Super 12 started, that’s all we did – gymming, training and playing games. I come from a sevens background and when I was playing that, it’s hard to believe, but I only weighed 80kg.

How did you deal with all the big boys?

I suppose I’d done all the weights, so I was quite physically strong and tough (laughs).

You don’t get the strength and toughness you had, by going to gym. Sean Fitzpatrick was a builder and Richard Loe was a farmer, which they both reckon helped toughen them up; what else do you think contributed to you natural strength?

We lived about half an hour outside Wellington – almost in the country. I used to do the milk run there when I was ten, eleven and twelve – carrying huge crates of milk and stuff. I did that three or four times a week and it used to take us three hours. That obviously helped.

You mentioned you played sevens; you played a lot of it in your career, how did it compare with the fifteen man game for you?

If the money and the opportunities were the same I would have chosen to play sevens. The game has changed a lot. With all the rucks and mauls it’s bit like a mini fifteen man game now. But in our day it was a bit more like touch rugby and I loved it.

During your career you had a few injuries; do any of them affect you today?

Yeah, I injured my knee when I was sixteen. I got my cartilage taken out then, because back in those days when you did your cartilage, they just whipped it out. These days I think they try and sew it up. It’s a longer recovery but at least you still have your cartilage. So my knee lasted quite long; considering. If I run everyday now it gets sore, but I play a lot of golf and I do some cycling. Oh, and I also play touch rugby a couple of times a week.

What’s your golf like?

I’ve got a four handicap, so I suppose it’s alright.

What cycling do you do?

I’ve got a couple of good mates who do road cycling so I’ve joined them. I want to keep fit because it’s what I’ve been doing for most of my life; also I didn’t want to always be running around the block. The funny thing is I can walk a round of golf and when I get off the course, my knee is a bit sore. But I can cycle for three hours and it is fine.

Didn’t you also hurt your shoulder?

It was weird – in my last game for the All Blacks, I fell over and did my shoulder. I had never hurt it up until then. I next went to play in Munster in Ireland. I was there for the first six months recovering and after that played for four years. I played about 30 odd games for them and then I did my other shoulder. It was a bit of a balls-up because I had it repaired in Ireland, but it wasn’t done properly.  I had to get it done again in London. So what was just a six month injury became an eleventh month one.

How did you enjoy living in Ireland?

Very good people. The rugby was obviously a lot different there. They played more a ten-man game of rugby. But it worked for them; they were one of the most successful teams in Ireland. It was a bit difficult for me coming from a team like the Hurricanes, where we used to throw the ball around. It’s tough rugby. You’re playing on those soggy grounds in crap weather – if you are a forward over there, it is very tough rugby.

Going back to your All Black career; it ended somewhat unpleasantly. Coaches John Mitchell and Robbie Deans apparently never handled your exit with the, ‘tact and sensitivity’ it deserved. What was that all about?

Yeah, when John Mitchell came on, he had his agenda. Andrew Mehrtens, Taine Randall, myself and a few other blokes weren’t in his plans. We got in for a few games and then it was all over.

How did you get on with Mitchell on a one to one basis?

Well I called him a dickhead in my book…. I thought he was because of some of the things he did. For example once before a test match in Dunedin, I hurt my knee. I went to see the doctor and he told me to take the week off. John wanted me to play club rugby that week – when I told him the doctor said I should rest, John said, ‘Listen, I call the shots around here.’ Bugger the doctor, John Mitchell wanted me to play! I just thought he’s not on my level, my wavelength; but I’m over it now. He did what he did; too bad it turned out that way.

And with Robbie Deans?

Obviously because he was with Mitchell our relationship didn’t go too well. But Robbie is a good coach and because there was some baggage with him, it was probably the best thing he went to Aussie. There he could start again fresh without any stuff dragging him down.

Nick Farr-Jones says they will win the next World Cup and then everyone will say it’s because of the Kiwi coach.

They’ll try and win it; they’ll try…

I picked up from your rugby that the country you scored most tries against, was South Africa. Tell me about that.

I love coming here; both for weather reasons and ground reasons. I mean I never liked playing in the rain, so coming here was just perfect; especially with our team The Hurricanes. We never always won, but we threw it around a bit. Mind you we had some good players on our side; some really good backs.

Do you still follow the Super 14?

(Laughs) I have to – I’m in a betting syndicate. I have to follow who is going well and who’s not. It should be easy, but it’s tougher than you think. Teams that should bloody win always seem to lose by a whisker. I’m supposed to be the rugby expert in our syndicate.

You once played for the Maori representative team – how did that come about?

I can’t remember what happened with the All Blacks, but for some reason at that time I wasn’t in the team, and the Maoris were looking for a full-black, so they pricked me.

Did they ‘make’ you an honorary Maori?

They didn’t ‘make’ me, I found some Maori in my family somewhere. I mean you only need a little bit of a fingernail that’s Maori to qualify. I think most Kiwis have a bit in them. Anyway they found some great, great, great grandfather of mine that was a Maori. It turns out I also have some Samoan and Tongan in me as well. The thing about playing for them is that they are so relaxed. You train hard but you have a lot of fun off the field. And also once they’ve picked the team for a forthcoming match, the picked guys are the ones who train hard. The rest can take it easy and it works surprisingly well for them – they had some great results.

Given that you had got into the team on a technicality, as it were; did they still accept you and mix with you?

Remember we played with a lot of them in the Super 14 – so we already knew each other. But a lot of the guys were whiter than me. Paul Tito is the whitest, ginger-haired Maori you’ve ever seen.

Until Mils Muliaina recently broke your record; you were that most capped All Black full-back.

Records are made to be broken – it’s a longevity thing. You hang around long enough and you’ll make records. Like I also had the try scoring record for the All Black’s but I think Dougie (Howlett) now has it. Remember though, I scored my tries off the back of legends like Jonah (Lomu), and Tana (Umaga) and if it wasn’t for those boys I wouldn’t have scored all those tries. It’s nice to have records, but not something I strived for. And in a team game like rugby it’s not really right to take all the credit for them.

What are you doing with yourself now?

I’m doing a lot of coaching stuff for the International Rugby Academy; which is great as now with this new Investec venture with Dick (Muir) and Murray (Mexted), I get to come out here more often, and as I said, I really enjoy being here.

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