In 1996 Christian Cullen was selected for his All Black debut after a Sevens season where he and Jonah Lomu tore apart everyone on the way to 18 tries in Hong Kong, including seven in one match.
Later that year he was called up to start against Samoa in the first test of the international season but a calf strain threatened to de-rail his debut.
“I strained my calf. I wasn’t too sure if I was going to be playing. I was waking up every three or four hours to ice it,” he later re-called.
“Then once I went out there the pain went away. It could have been adreneline or the nerves making it go away, I don’t know, but I was pretty determined to play.
“That game we got our jerseys given to us the night before. You take it back to your room and give it a bit of a cuddle, have a look at the number and the All Black emblem on the front and fold it and put it your bag nicely.
Early in the match, a 20-year-old Cullen was hit high in a swinging arm tackle and required medical attention. A short while later he was rocked again by a Brian Lima special after fielding a kick.
The introduction to test rugby only furthered Cullen’s resolve to make something of his debut and prove he belonged on the field.
“You want to get back up, not only show your teammates what you are made of, but the rest of New Zealand that are watching that you deserve to be there,” he said.
The mercurial fullback scored his try of the test shortly after, gliding over from the left wing after receiving the last pass from Zinzan Brooke five metres out.
“I actually remember kinda juggling it a little bit. First test, first try, you can’t get much better than that.”
Cullen went on to bag a hat-trick in the game to ignite his test career.
“It was a pretty good start for me in the All Black jersey. You remember what year, what place, who was in your team, and happy to score a hat-trick on debut.”
His next game against Scotland yielded four tries, and set Cullen on a path of a prolific test career where he scored 46 tries in 58 tests between 1996 and 2003, where he was infamously dropped by John Mitchell.
His test career ended at the early age of 26 which in today’s age would be unheard of for a player of his calibre in the modern era. He is still regarded as the greatest fullback of all time for his elusive running style which tore teams apart.
Watch Christian Cullen’s debut for the All Blacks against Samoa
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