Friday 22 September 2017

'In that era you played until you couldn't' - All Blacks legend Christian Cullen

Christian Cullen is working as a television analysts for Sky Sports and is part owner of the Irish bar in Wellington called Jack Hackett’s. Photo by Mark Tantrum/Getty Images
Christian Cullen is working as a television analysts for Sky Sports and is part owner of the Irish bar in Wellington called Jack Hackett’s. Photo by Mark Tantrum/Getty Images
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Given the freedom and joy with which he played the game, it is difficult to envisage how Christian Cullen ever fell out of love with rugby but when the injuries finally curtailed his career the game lost its lustre.

Munster never saw the best of him during his four-year stint in the 2000s, but the 'Paekakariki Express' remains the outstanding full-back of the professional era, arguably the greatest of all time.

Cullen was only 31 when he called it a day 10 years ago, but he knows now he made the right call. Picture credit; Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Cullen was only 31 when he called it a day 10 years ago, but he knows now he made the right call. Picture credit; Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

Type his name into YouTube and you disappear down a rabbit hole of the mesmeric foot-work, breath-taking pace and brilliant finishing that marked his career. Someone has put together all 46 of his international tries in one video and it is a stunning collection of brilliant scores and baggy jerseys.

He scored seven tries in his first two Tests and carried on from there, contributing handsomely to a blockbuster backline.

John Mitchell brought down the curtain on his All Black career in 2002 and he headed for Ireland soon after.

Injury marred his time with Munster and not being able to fulfil his potential remains a regret, but when he hung up his boots and headed home he took a break from the game; it just wasn't doing it for him any more.

"There was a time when I got back when I just went off rugby," the now 41-year-old Cullen says.

"I don't know if you had it over there (in Europe), but rugby got really boring with a lot of kicking and I wasn't enjoying it.

"Working on TV got me back in, because I had to watch to see how players and teams are going.

"It's been good, eh? You get to go to some pretty cool games."

Working as an analyst for New Zealand's Sky Sports wasn't a natural career move for a reserved character, he freely admits, but he has grown into the role and is enjoying covering the Lions series up close.

Legacy

Physically, he hasn't changed an awful lot. The hair, still cropped short, is grey now but while he can't run as a legacy of the toll his career took on his body he still keeps in shape.

As he sits in the rooftop garden of Jack Hackett's, the Irish bar he part owns in Wellington, he says the aches and pains have cleared. He was only 31 when he called it a day 10 years ago, but he knows now he made the right call.

"It got to a point where it wasn't fun any more, trainings were a drag," he reflects. "You got your body strapped, your ankle strapped and you had a sore back and shoulders.

"You play rugby because it's fun and I kind of knew there was a point when, s*** I could have gone to Japan and gutsed it out for a couple of years but I wanted to be able to run around with my kids and walk the golf course.

"I've got no cartilage in my knee, that's an issue if I do a lot of exercise on it, but the rest of the body I can get by with everything I want to do like golf and tennis, I go to the gym still and keep reasonably fit.

"I can do most things, I don't like running so I don't. But I get on the bike, the cross-trainer.

"I did enough running when I was playing, I don't need to now I've retired. The young kids can do that now!

"When I came back from Ireland, for about six months I took time off and got the body right; played a bit of golf and started a family. Four kids later..."

The kids will learn of their dad's exploits as they get older; how he played 51 Tests back to back during the early stages of the professional era.

It was a time when rugby was still finding it's way and when he looks at the way the game is being played now, he wishes he was out there.

"I'd love to have played in today's game where the scientifics of it are greater than what we had," he says. "Possibly you could be a better player, you could see things ... we used to play head's up rugby but I like the way they play today, the way they see things. That can be taught, eh?

"You can have the natural stuff like Beauden Barrett, but you need cues.

"You hear them talking about that now, but we didn't have those cues, the micro skills, it was just here's the ball and away you go.

"In '96, it was one-size fits all with our Canterbury jerseys. Too bad if Jonah (Lomu) was sick one week and you had to jump on the wing, the No 11 was an XL shirt - you tuck it in and it comes out the bottom of your shorts. If it rained you'd go on at 86kgs and you'd come off at 90kg!

"I like now how far the game has gone, how scientific it's gone. Whether that's training methods, the mental side of the game - a lot of it when we were coming through was a blanket scenario.

"You throw a blanket over everyone, this is how we do it with training, etc.

"Now, you're different to me; that guy is different and everyone's got their own way.

"I like that, it's pretty cool and it's going to get better. It's evolving. The players, the athletes now are better than they've ever been."

The scientific approach may have also given him greater longevity.

"I've no doubt, I don't know how many times I would have played with injuries where I possibly shouldn't, when I played with a bad knee through a Super Rugby tournament and that just wouldn't happen now," he says.

"That's just how it was back then, I've no gripes or anything. You didn't want to give anyone the opportunity to get in and get your jersey.

"You didn't want to come off until they told you to come off, basically.

"Now, there's player welfare which is good because you want the players playing as long as they can.

"If I needed an operation I always went for it at the end of the year. If you'd got something, you'd play through.

"I did shoulders and biceps, I tore my bicep and strapped it up. You could get an operation, but you just strapped it up and said 'leave it'. In that era you played until you couldn't."

Not that Cullen is complaining, he revelled in being an All Black.

"I was reasonably young, I left school and did odd jobs; lived in Manawatu when I was 18 and I was an All Black at 20," he recalls.

"It was a massive eye opener, professional rugby in 1996; coming from school and earning 200 bucks a week in the job I was doing as a Regional Development Officer for Manawatu Rugby, to getting a contract as a 19/20 year-old was pretty cool.

"I was a simple guy, mate, I didn't spend money and my parents looked after me. I'd good people around me buying property and all that sort of stuff.

"I just enjoyed the ride, you're 20 and suddenly you're 27 and your career is almost over. It goes quick. I say it to guys now, enjoy the ride and make sure you've got good people around you.

"People talk about the '96 tour to South Africa - the first time we won a series over there but to me, I was only young, it probably means more to me now than what it did back then.

"I was 20-years old, enjoying the ride. I was over in Africa for the first time, touring and it was bloody good fun.

"For me, personally, I got to play with some pretty amazing players. Obviously guys that aren't here now, Jonah was one of those guys.

"I had a pretty good seat, you know? I was at full-back and he was on the wing, so I got to see some pretty cool stuff he did on the field.

"As an All Black you get to play with some of the best players in the world."

Sadly, some of those memories are tinged with sadness. Lomu has passed on, as has his All Black colleague Jerry Collins and his old Munster team-mate Anthony Foley.

"It's been a bit of a shock really," he says. "I don't know when you play rugby, a contact sport and you feel reasonably invincible, you can't be broken.

"It must be just that age where stuff like that starts happening. Mates at 50 are having heart attacks, we're getting older.

"It was tough with Jonah and JC, boys you played with and you'd think they'd be around forever.

"We didn't realise how sick Jonah was, he never really told anybody. That's the person he was, he didn't let on and didn't want to burden people with his issues. It was a big shock.

"JC was far out, a massive shock.

"When I heard about Axel, I thought it was a hoax. I was in Abu Dhabi and I looked at my Facebook feed and I was like 'no way'. Massive shock, it's just the age we're getting to."

Foley was part of the dressing-room when Munster made the audacious move to sign Cullen in 2003. He was the kind of capture the province can only dream about making now, one of the most exciting players in the world. When he landed, he was greeted at Cork Airport by hundreds of fans.

Unfortunately, he was carrying a shoulder injury as well as his luggage and wouldn't make his debut for six months. It would be the first of many issues that plagued his four-year stay.

"I'd been dropped (by the All Blacks), John Mitchell was the coach. I just saw no way forward if I stayed in New Zealand," he recalls.

"Alan Gaffney was trying to get Chris Latham and he pulled out of the deal, so my decision was made within two weeks.

"I wasn't looking at going, but that came up and Gaffney flew from Aussie over to here and I made my decision in two weeks. I didn't really think about it, I didn't care where I went I just wanted to get out of New Zealand.

Flown

"I was young, but I just felt with John Mitchell there for the long haul Munster came up at that time and I went.

"My manager went over to check things out, so that was the first time I'd flown in.

"For me, it probably wasn't the best start; turning up injured. I played the last game here in New Zealand and hurt my shoulder, but I was told it would be alright.

"So, I got to Ireland and it wasn't getting better. Got the scan and there was a tear in it.

"It wasn't the best start, but credit to Munster they kept me on and fixed it up.

"It was tough, I got a lot of injuries over there, injuries I never had here I don't know, that's just the way footy goes. I just got a bad run.

"Those injuries were tough, you want to turn up somewhere and make a good impression and I had six months off.

"I got back and had 40-odd games on the trot and it went alright, but then I did the other shoulder. It was hard, you just feel bad. You're in training by yourself, doing rehab by yourself on the other side of the world. It was tough.

"The boys were great, they were a good bunch and made sure I was OK. They understood that it's rugby, injuries happen. You don't go out to get injured or play badly, it's just the way it is."

Ten years on, he is able to enjoy the game again. Given how much enjoyment he gave others, it's only fair.

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