Belfast Telegraph

Cullen back in love with rugby after his glorious but injury-hit career

By 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.

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

He scored six tries in his first two Tests and carried on from there, contributing handsomely to a block-buster backline.

Coach 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.

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 roof-top 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, 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 its 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 heads 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.

Ten years on from his retirement, he is able to enjoy the game again.

Given how much enjoyment Cullen gave others, it is only fair.

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