Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

100 Greatest All Blacks - 1st XV: No 9 Christian Cullen

Rugby retirement has not dulled Christian Cullen's competitive quality. He has traded in his boots for golf shoes as he treads the fairways on his local Paraparaumu course.

Cullen did not take up the sport until he made the All Blacks but has worked his way down to a handy three handicap although he has yet to crack a personal target.

"I have knocked it around in 70 which is one under but I haven't been able to beat that," he said. "The whole game intrigues me, every day is so different. One day you shoot a 70 and the next it is 84. It becomes such a mental game just like any top sport.

"Golf pros must go through hell when they can't get a putt and they are five or six off the pace. I love a challenge and this really gets my competitive juices going."

During his travels Cullen has enjoyed a hit at Sun City in South Africa and courses like Old Head and the K Club when he completed his final rugby years in Ireland.

As CEO of the Christian Cullen Management Group he has a range of commercial interests like the distribution of a new rugby video analysis system with an emphasis on strong community-based programmes.

It's been 18 years since Cullen leaped out of the television broadcasts at the Hong Kong sevens into the All Black trials and then a dramatic three try-haul on debut against Samoa in Napier.

"I'd played sevens but only one game in Hong Kong the year before, then Adrian Cashmore was hurt and I played the whole tournament in '96," he said. "I was so nervous about playing for the All Blacks. I also had a calf injury that week and it was still sore on the bus on the way to the ground but then with the adrenaline or whatever, it disappeared in the match. I remember getting on the plane the next day and the coach was sitting up the front of the plane, and as I went by he said 'it only gets tougher from here'."

It was not quite like that but close. Cullen scored four tries against Scotland in Dunedin the next week but then, like the All Blacks, struggled to find form in the second test in Auckland.

Christian Cullen was part of the special All Black group to win a first series in South Africa. Picture / Getty Images

Cullen was part of the special All Black group to win a first series in South Africa as he amazed rugby followers with his speed, anticipation and evasion skills.

He only played one World Cup and for that tournament John Hart shifted him to centre with Jeff Wilson at fullback, Tana Umaga and Jonah Lomu on the wings. Cullen was content to help the team in any role.

"Now looking back, I would say I'd want to play fullback, if not then don't pick me. Fullback was my best position in test rugby.

"I only saw a replay of that semifinal loss to France in 1999 when I was sitting on a bike in the gym. France had 20 or 30 minutes where everything went their way and we made a few mistakes and that was the game."

Cullen was struggling with a chronic knee problem and to get on the same wavelength as new coach John Mitchell in 2002. After a farewell match for Wellington at the Cake Tin, he spent four seasons in Ireland.

"I loved it with Jonah and Tana on the wings at the Canes. I'd trail behind Jonah because he always beat three or four with his power and pace and Tana had a step and an offload. They must have been a nightmare for defenders - all I had to do was follow them."

Date of birth: 12 February 1976
Position: Fullback
Matches: 60
Tests: 58
Test debut: 7 June 1996 v Samoa, Napier
Last test: 16 November 2002 v France, Paris
Provinces: Manawatu, Central Vikings, Wellington
Franchise: Hurricanes
Test tries: 46
Test points: 236

- NZ Herald

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