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Wednesday, 19 December 2018 09:31 pm

Life after All Blacks: ‘You wake up and think what do I do now?’

Christian Cullen redefined attacking rugby in his 15-year career. The Paekakariki Express recalls his playing days for DAN DALGETY and tells how life has changed since he retired in 2007:

FULL FLIGHT: Cullen playing for Irish club Munster. IMAGE: www.irishrugby.ie

THESE days, Christian Cullen can walk around without pain in his shoulders, back, ankles and knee.

That was not the case four years ago, when he retired from rugby.

The pain had caught up with him in the end, and was a primary reason why he called time on an astonishing career, which produced stunning plays from nothing, freakish tries that left New Zealand crowds baying for more.

“I was waking up sore every morning for that last year in Ireland, limping around for a couple of hours until the body came right,” he recalls.

“Don’t get me wrong. I loved the games, the buzz of running out and the crowds.” But once the decision was finalised in 2007, he had no regrets.

“I retired and I was happy. Every day you could feel the body getting better, it wasn’t getting smashed. I reckon it took a good six months, but I can wake up now and feel good.

“The shoulders are good, back, ankles and knee don’t hurt. I’ve got three young kids, so it’s good to feel you can run around and play with them.”

The former champion fullback has eased into post-rugby life, feels rejuvenated and is enjoying every second of it.

Meeting Cullen at the Wellington sports bar The Four Kings, which he jointly owns, feels like catching up with an old friend over a pint. The famous number 15 jersey hangs proudly on the wall. He sports a few grey hairs.  He seems calm, humble, but it’s not long before the jokes and funny touring incidents begin to pour out.

Cullen finished up playing in the All Black jersey at just 26. In many fans’ eyes, his international career had ended far too early, and many blamed former All Blacks coach John Mitchell.

Cullen treasured his time in the All Black jersey. But the question of why Cullen didn’t get along with Mitchell still remains. “It is what it is. I don’t know what it was or why we didn’t get along or why things happened.

“I didn’t get along with him for whatever reason – a few other All Blacks [didn’t either]. If I saw him, we’d say ‘hey, g’day’, but we wouldn’t be going down shouting beers and hi-fiving.”

Cullen’s understated response to what was a seminal point in his career is typical.

MEMORIES

Other memories include one of the “back-seat battles” on the team bus, a place usually reserved for senior players, unless a player is invited.

“(Number eight) Zinzan Brooke was at the back and invited me to join the back seat. All the young guys tried to attack, but you’ve got no chance.

“It got a bit rough and when we got off, it probably wasn’t a good look going into the hotel with ripped shirts, bloody noses and all that sort of stuff.”

TRY TIME: Cullen was a record try-scorer. IMAGE: www.netprosolutions.com

His All Black memories could have been such a different story.

Cullen could have been tearing up opposing defences and defusing huge torpedo kicks in the code’s rival, rugby league, had the transformation to professional rugby not come along.

League was a tempting proposition.  “If rugby hadn’t turned professional, I probably would’ve given league a good crack.”

Growing up, he loved watching the All Blacks, but there was no Super rugby, only the NPC (National Provincial Championship).

“I always watched Monday night footy (league), Friday, [and] Saturday. I [played] one game [of league] – Kapti College played ‘Pram’ (Paraparaumu College) – and I loved it.”

Cullen says the chance of playing against Australian league star Darren Lockyer in his prime and modern day league stars like Jarryd Hayne and Greg Inglis would have been appealing.

He married long-time partner Mandy Fawcett earlier this year and they’ve moved back up to the Kapti Coast with their three kids. Finding a profession to fill the substantial void left left by rugby has been a challenge.

“It’s been four years now. I’ve invested in a bar and a company up in Auckland, got some rentals, do a bit of coaching. I’m still waiting for that one [fulltime job]. I reckon I’d just see something and think that would be cool.

“Rugby’s basically been my life up until four years ago. When you retire the money stops. You wake up on a Monday thinking ‘Shit, what am I going to do now?”

WHAT OTHERS SAY

Former All Black coach John Hart says Cullen was a calm and quiet individual when it came to handling the limelight.

“He was quiet. He kept to himself a bit, but he was a really likeable young man,” he says. “I always felt he handled the step up very well on a personal basis in terms of personal qualities.”

Former team-mate Alama Ieremia says Cullen was quiet off the field, but on the paddock he held nothing back.

“He stuck to himself quite a bit. He enjoyed his golf and was a competitive individual in his own right. He’s also a good friend of mine. We got along really well.

Ieremia vividly recalls what Cullen brought to the game. “He was probably the most talented outside back I’ve played with. He was a very gifted footballer. He was a natural counter-attacker. He would see space and move towards that in half a second. He had massive acceleration.”

Cullen spoke of the frustration he felt after arriving in Ireland, feeling broken down, bruised and battered, with another fresh injury after his final season of New Zealand rugby.

It was a new beginning away on the other side of the world. The Irish culture would fix all that.  “If you know the Irish, they’re pretty good fun. I think I needed that, because I turned up there injured. I realised I needed a bloody operation. For about six months, they looked after me.”

Travel wasn’t high on the agenda for Cullen in Ireland, but golf was. “To be honest, I’m not much of a tourist. When we got to Ireland, we were based in Cork. I loved playing golf so I’d travel two and half to three hours for golf. But I wouldn’t travel that long to see a castle or whatever.”

There were some famous golfing battles on various All Black tours between Zinzan and Robin Booke, Sean Fitzpatrick, Andrew Mehrtens, Justin Marshall and Cullen.

But he reckons with all the practice he’s been getting lately, he may be good enough to beat former All Blacks first-five-eighth and pal Andrew Mehrtens, who still plays rugby in France at 38.

“Mehrts is a pretty handy golfer. I reckon he had it over me back then, but I reckon I could have a good crack at him now.”

HOW IT ALL BEGAN

His diverse sporting talents come up when he is asked about childhood memories on the Kapiti Coast.  From an early age, Cullen had an eye for all sports. Academic studies were never really the focus.

It all began in the backyard. Rough and tumble test matches against elder brother Shane were like warfare, often ending in tears for the younger brother.

BUSINESS BOOMING: Jose Umbiaga (left), Cullen and Matt McLaughan celebrate a third hospitality award.

Cullen says the joy of catching some big waves would often end up in surfing trips going across different part of Wellington region, searching for the best spots.

“There weren’t too many big waves down in Paekakariki. We used to take the boards down there and get out. When we got our licences we used to travel up to Pekapeka and Lyall Bay.”

As a former Maori All Black, Christian Cullen can relate to some of the problems Maori rugby has gone through, and still is.

With one sixty-fourth Maori decent, he was selected for the 2003 New Zealand Maori side. Questions were raised over whether players should be selected even if they had hardly any Maori blood.

“The Maoris’ asked ‘have you got any Maori in ya?’ The old man [Chris Cullen] tracked it down and apparently some great-great grandfather down south had some. You don’t need much.”

Cullen supports the call for the New Zealand Maori side to remain, despite several suggestions that the team should be abandoned.

“I think they should always have it. You look at the tradition and their percentage of wins is pretty good. Any team that comes out and has to play the Maoris is in for a tough battle. They’re no easy game.

“[When] you get picked and play with these guys, it’s a completely different environment. It’s always [‘have] fun and play hard’. I’m not much of a singer, but there always the guitar and singing, that real good, close bond.”

Some Maori All Blacks from his era – Carlos Spencer, Rico Gear, Luke McAlister – got famous Maori designs replicated as tattoos, and the idea of doing the same has crossed his mind.

“I’ve been a bit too wussy for that. [It could happen] later. The only thing, if anything, is get your kids’ names [tattooed on] – something small.”

Cullen is happy to be back on the coast with his own kids, back where his rise began playing for Horowhenua Kapiti, before he was “discovered” by Gordon Tietjens.

NEXT LEGEND?

Veteran broadcaster Keith Quinn says Tietjens’ ability to unearth players and turn them into superstars, like Cullen, is still evident.  When virtual unknown Declan O’Donnell burst onto the Wellington Sevens stage in February, the name Cullen was recalled.

Quinn says O’Donnell’s breakthrough was more rapid than Cullen’s and has certainly been creating waves in rugby circles.

“O’Donnell’s rise was quicker. He broke away from it all in Wellington”, but he thinks the new boy has some way to go. “[Cullen’s emergence] was absolutely out of this world when he started. He (O’Donnell) hasn’t reached that yet.”

Cullen had many twists, turns, setbacks and triumphs during his rugby days, but he left a legend. Now Declan O’Donnell is on the rise, will he be the next to emulate the Express?

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is a journalist in the making, with the aim to become a sports journalist. He enjoys all sports especially rugby league.
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2 comments
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  1. Good article man. It sounds like you and Cully had a good chinwag.

  2. Biggest mistake ever by NZRU to put Mitchell as coach, and drop Cullen prematurely!! The team needed a super sub even if Mitchell didn’t want to play Cullen in the first line up. I think Mitchell thought he could coach a team of team players to win the World Cup, but he was obviously proved wrong and Cullen could well have made the difference to that team, in the quarter, semifinals (and final when we got there)
    Perhaps Mitchell was backing himself to be the wonder coach, but he left the real hero at home! And many Cullen fans went on to suffer first the disappointment of his non selection and then the loss of yet another World Cup. Go figure!
    I wrote to NZRFU expressing my concern at Mitchell’s choice to drop our best player and potential secret weapon on the bench/super sub when it happened from a coach’s point of view…no response.

    Now it’s great to see Cullen back in NZ, modest as ever and in many opinions still the greatest back in All Black history. I hope to visit his bar one day and shake his hand.

    Many thanks for the article.

    Longtime Rugby fan, Former NZ hockey player and Sports Coach

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