Christian Cullen burst onto the rugby scene in 1996 on the sevens circuit, where he scored a record 18 tries in the Hong Kong tournament. Aged only 20 he made the All Blacks that same year, scoring an incredible seven tries in his first two tests, made up of three against Samoa then four against Scotland. Cullen went on to play 50 consecutive tests; a record unlikely to be repeated. Along the way he transformed how the world saw the fullback position, becoming arguably the greatest attacking fullback of all time. In 1996 he was an integral part of the All Blacks’ historic series win in South Africa. Because of his roots around the outskirts of the Wellington area and because of his extreme pace, he was nicknamed The Paekakariki Express.
For a number of years Christian Cullen had the record for scoring the most test tries for the All Blacks, with 46. The record stood for five years before being broken in 2007 by Doug Howlett. Even ten years after he left the All Blacks he is still second-equal with Joe Rokocoko. The current All Black with the most tries is Dan Carter, with 29. Cullen’s impressive strike rate of a try every 1.21 tests is unmatched.
Interestingly, the man who took the try scoring record away from Cullen, Doug Howlett, also went onto play for Munster. However, he has had far greater luck with injuries, carving out an illustrious career in Ireland – winning the Heineken Cup in 2008 and being named captain for the current season.
With 16 tries, Christian Cullen still holds the record for most tries in the Rugby Championship, which back then was called the Tri Nations. Joe Rokocoko came close to equalling the record, but retired from international rugby while still on 15 tries. Record try-scorer Doug Howlett finished his test career with 13 Rugby Championship tries. Cullen was also the first player to score a try in every Tri-Nations test in a series. Considering the number of tests played in the tournament now, it is unlikely another player will ever match that feat.
Along with his International success, Christian Cullen also had an impressive Super Rugby and provincial career. In his 85 matches for the Hurricanes he scored 56 tries, which was a record at the time and still good enough to place him in the top three behind Doug Howlett and Joe Roff. He was actually involved in the first Super Rugby game ever played, for the Hurricanes against the Blues at Eden Park in 1996. He formed a devastating combination with winger Tana Umaga. They were eventually joined by Jonah Lomu, forming an impressive back three combination.
Cullen debuted at provincial level in 1995 for Manawatu. In 1997 he played a season for the ill-fated merger of Manawatu and Hawkes Bay, the Central Vikings. However, he transferred permanently to Wellington in 1998, winning an NPC title with them in 2000. Christian Cullen scored over 150 tries in his New Zealand first class career. He received a standing ovation from the Wellington crowd in the 2003 NPC final, even members of the opposing Auckland team stopped to applaud as Cullen left a New Zealand field for the last time.
Unfortunately Cullen had to undergo knee surgery in 2001, and never seemed to regain his trademark acceleration. To accommodate this he rebuilt his game around stronger positional play and a focus on play making and setting up tries. During this time he seemed to fall foul of new All Blacks coach John Mitchell. Despite scoring eight tries in the 2003 Super Rugby tournament, he wasn’t selected in the build up to the 2003 Rugby World Cup. Mitchell and assistant coach Robbie Deans preferred Leon McDonald at fullback, and eventually giving Mil Muliaina his chance to build a record breaking legacy at the back. When the World Cup squad was announced it was revealed that Ben Blair was also ranked ahead of Cullen, who did not make the 30 man squad. Blair was ruled out early, but Ben Atiga was also called up over Cullen, now apparently the fifth ranked fullback in New Zealand. At around this time Cullen released his controversial biography, called Christian Cullen: Life on the Run, which heavily criticised Mitchell.
After missing selection for the 2003 Rugby World Cup and with an irreparable relationship with the All Black coach, Cullen made the decision to leave New Zealand, aged only 27. His last test match was in 2002 and he finished with 58 tests and the records for most tries for the All Blacks and in Super Rugby. His 46 tries puts him 7th equal on the list of all time rugby try scorers, even with Rokocoko and current International players Brian O’Driscoll from Ireland and Bryan Habana from South Africa. However, it is worth noting that Cullen played less tests than everyone else in the top 20, meaning his strike rate was far greater. The exception is world record scorer Daisuke Ohata from Japan, who scored an unbelievable 69 tries in the same number of tests. However, of his 69 tries, only a quarter were scored against leading rugby nations. This contrasts with Cullen, who scored most of his tries against the world’s top ranked sides. For example, ten against and South Africa and eight against Australia.
Unfortunately Christian Cullen was never able to effectively showcase his wares on rugby’s biggest stage, the Rugby World Cup. The only one he attended was the 1999 World Cup in France, at which he was shoehorned into the centre position to make room for Tana Umaga, Jonah Lomu and Jeff Wilson in the back three. The All Blacks were famously bundled out in the semifinals by France.
Following his departure from New Zealand in 2003, Cullen joined Irish side Munster and after four injury plagued seasons there he retired from all rugby in 2007 and returned to New Zealand.
John Mitchell’s All Blacks would famously be eliminated during the 2003 World Cup semi finals by Australia, and Mitchell would be replaced as coach by Graham Henry. However, history tells us that Cullen’s body may not have survived much longer at international level anyway and Mils Muliaina would go on to have a stranglehold on the fullback jersey for 100 tests. Still, this has been stark consolation to Cullen’s legions of fans who still hold Mitchell responsible for ending Cullen’s International career. Indeed, New Zealand rugby had not witnessed such a public outcry over the dropping of a player since Buck Shelford in 1990, and hasn’t again since.
Here’s one of the most brilliant individual tries ever scored. Cullen scored against New South Wales while playing for the Hurricanes. The Paekakariki Express takes the ball on his own line and goes on to score himself.
In this YouTube video Rugby Channel USA spend 5 minutes with All Black legend Christian Cullen. The interview comes soon after New Zealand won the 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medal for rugby sevens – a medal Cullen himself won in 1998.