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'Full circle' Classic All Blacks fixture will reunite the Blues of yesteryear

By Tom Vinicombe
Luke McAlister, Rudi Wulf and Jerome Kaino. (Photos by Anthony Au-Yeng/Photosport)

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It’s been over 10 years since Rudi Wulf last played rugby in New Zealand but the former All Blacks wing will get the opportunity to suit up alongside some of his former teammates when he takes the field in Madrid this weekend.

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38-year-old Wulf is just one member of the Classic All Blacks side that will take on the Spanish national side at the Wanda Metropolitano – home of one of the titans of the European footballing world, Atletico Madrid.

Wulf, who is working with the Toulon Under 20s side – having represented the French powerhouse on the playing front for half a decade, never expected he would be back representing the Silver Fern after first departing NZ in 2010.

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The key to stopping the Blues.
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The key to stopping the Blues.

“It’s funny because things have kind of come full circle for me,” Wulf tells RugbyPass.

“When I first started at North Harbour, my first year, I was playing with guys like Hosea and Rico Gear, and Luke McAlister. It’s funny because I’m playing with them now at the end of my career. Even at the Blues, playing with Luke, Sam Tuitupou, Alby Mathewson, Jerome Kaino. It’s pretty cool to be able to finish up with them as well. I didn’t think I’d be playing with them again (after leaving NZ).”

 

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Alongside the likes of Kaino, McAlister, Conrad Smith and some of the top New Zealand representatives of yesteryear, Wulf is hopeful that the exhibition match will help grow the game in the Iberian Peninsula, where rugby unsurprisingly takes a backseat to football – but is still making steady progress.

“To be part of a team like this, you’re still proud to pull on the jersey and do the haka,” he says. “You still get the chills.

“Hopefully we can get a good turnout and a few UK supporters making it over for the match. I think the weather is going to be beautiful and it’ll be an awesome festival kind of atmosphere in Madrid.”

Wulf, who finished off his 19-year professional career last season, has unsurprisingly played at some exceptional stadiums over the years. He includes the Stade Velodrome in Marseille (where next weekend’s European finals will take place) and Lyon’s Parc Olympique Lyonnais as two of his most memorable arenas – and both will be used at next year’s Rugby World Cup – but it’s Kings Park Stadium in Durban that really captured Wulf’s imagination.

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“The Sharks’ home ground, I’ll always remember when I played there with the Blues,” he says. “The atmosphere was crazy. Just after the game when you walk out, everyone’s just in the carpark having their barbecues and having a drink, telling you can come over and join them for a feed. That was a pretty cool experience.

“I always enjoyed making the trip to South Africa and playing in front of the crowds over there because they love their rugby … I know all the boys enjoyed the tour over there as well.”

Of course, playing at the Wanda Metropolitano, with a capacity of almost 70,000, will be an experience of its own – one few rugby players will be lucky enough to include in their CV, regardless of how many years they’ve been involved in the game.

The first challenge for the Wulf and the Classic All Blacks for the week will be once again adjusting to life with a roommate, an ongoing tradition for touring sides.

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Wulf has had his fair share of roommates in his time – including fellow Classic All Black Tuitupou.

“My first year in the Under 21s, Sam Tuitupou was our captain that year and because I was one of the young boys that came from the Under 19s team, they chucked me in to room with him,” Wulf recalls.

“I couldn’t believe it – I was used to watching him on TV with the Blues. I was so nervous; I didn’t know what to say. Just didn’t want to do anything wrong – I was just saying ‘Yep, yep, thank you’.

“That night we were staying in the hotel, I didn’t want to do anything wrong, being one of the young boys, so I thought I would go to bed early to make sure I could get up on time for breakfast and training. I was fast asleep and then Sammy woke me up in the middle of the night – ‘Rudi, Rudi!’ I was shocked, asking if everything was all right. He was like ‘Oh yeah, do you want a pie?’ He had a few on him so I felt like I couldn’t say no. So had a bit of a midnight snack, eating a pie with Sammy Tuitupou. That was one of the highlights for me.”

“I wouldn’t mind rooming with him again,” Wulf adds. “He was a good roomie.”

The second – and considerably larger challenge – for Wulf and his teammates will be adjusting to the demands of playing a rugby match in what could be 30 degrees temperatures against some formidable opposition. While the Classic All Blacks may be a few years out of the professional game, the Spanish side they’ll be facing on Saturday night are fresh off a European Cup campaign and certainly won’t be holding anything back.

“I’m still trying to keep the body in shape, stay fit,” Wulf says. “After trainings with the (Toulon Under 20s) boys, I’ll shoot into the gym and do a session. When you see them training and doing the conditioning games, you want to join in with them sometimes to see how you go but we’ve got a few quick boys in our Under 20s, it’s pretty tough for me to keep up with them now.

“I think we would have asked for rolling subs if it was during the day. Try and get as much water around us as possible. It’d be pretty tough to keep the hydration up when it’s sizzling like that.

“Especially looking at the way the Spanish boys play. From their last couple of games, they like to run it around and aren’t afraid to have a go anywhere on the field. It’ll test us a bit, trying to keep up with their pace and their speed.”

Wulf made his All Blacks debut in 2008 and featured four times in the black jersey while also collectively clocking over a century of caps for North Harbour and the Blues. Upon finishing up in New Zealand, Wulf went on to make over 80 appearances for both Toulon and Lyon.

The Classic All Blacks last took the field against Toulon in 2015 to commemorate the passing of Jerry Collins, with Wulf featuring on the wing.

Tickets are still available for this weekend’s fixture between the Classic All Blacks and Los Leones, which will take place at the Wanda Metropolitano on Saturday 28 May at 8:35pm.

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