The greatest full-backs of all time: Christian Cullen
Christian Cullen's New Zealand Test career was short lived, but the full-back left a lasting impression on world rugby, as one of the greatest to pull on the No 15 jersey
Major teams: Manawatu, Wellington, Hurricanes, Munster
Country: New Zealand
Test span: 1996-2002
Test caps: 58 (56 starts)
Test points: 236 (46T, 3C)
Like a lightning bolt, he flashed dramatically into the rugby firmament and then disappeared, his Test career ending when he was only 26.
It was time enough to imprint himself on the game as possibly the best attacking full-back in history, and only Doug Howlett (49) has scored more test tries than Cullen (46) for the All Blacks.
Growing up in Paekakariki, north of Wellington, Cullen was a big fish in a small pond at Kapiti College, making his first XV debut at 15 and becoming goal kicking centre.
In 1996, at the age of 20, he burst into the nation’s consciousness with his Man of the Tournament showing at the Hong Kong Sevens. He set records for the most tries (18) and points (136) and coach Gordon Tietjens called it the greatest sevens performance he had seen.
Cullen’s career exploded. On his Test debut against Samoa, he was cut in half by a Brain Lima tackle but bounced up to score a hat-trick. In his next game, against Scotland, he beat seven defenders for the first of his four tries. “Lomu is the devil we know,” said Scotland captain Rob Wainwright, “Cullen is the one we’re learning about.”
Cullen’s gliding running style, with no pumping of the arms and no obvious exertion, was one of the great sights in the game. Although he could step off both feet, he often beat players by deception, and his timing into the line was exceptional.
The man dubbed the ‘Paekakariki Express’ became a try-scoring machine and by the time he faced France in 2000, he had become the fifth man to play 50 consecutive Tests, after McBride, Edwards, Fitzpatrick and Roff. That run included a few caps at wing and, at the 1999 World Cup, at outside-centre.
Cullen fell out of favour with new All Blacks coach John Mitchell and he upped sticks to Munster, where his career fizzled out in 2007 after a succession of injuries.