...Munster's Christian Cullen...
Still New Zealand's record Test try scorer, and Munster-contracted since 2003, few players would have a better insight on next Saturday's first Test between the All Blacks and Ireland than Christian Cullen.
The 'Paekakariki Express', whose third season with Munster was blighted by a shoulder injury, won the last of his 58 New Zealand caps against France in 2002. The following summer he garnered three New Zealand Maori caps, but Cullen fell out of favour with then All Blacks coach John Mitchell despite his incredible scoring record of 46 tries in 58 Tests.
The 30-year-old full-back, who played only two Celtic League games this year for Munster before damaging his ankle in the second one against the Ospreys, has a decision to make this summer. His original three-year deal with the province is up, so does he stay at Munster and help the reigning European champions go for a second Heineken Cup crown next season? Or return to New Zealand where there are a number of teams after his signature, including his former club Wellington.
Cullen's manager Dave Monnery told the Sunday News: "We are currently reviewing his status. It's fair to say his first option would be to remain at Munster. But if they decide he is surplus to requirements then we will be in a position to consider all of the offers - including the ones from New Zealand."
Cullen, the Celtic League's top try scorer in 2004/05 with 8 tries in 15 games, is currently back in New Zealand for the first time since moving to Ireland. He lives in Cork with his Kiwi partner Mandy Fawcett but until now has hosted family and friends in Munster, and holidayed in Greece and Spain.
The couple have seen up close just how special the Munster supporters are. Cullen said: "The Heineken Cup final was awesome in Cardiff. Never seen anything like it. Munster have the best supporters in the world, especially with travelling support. You go to France to play in some pr*ck of a place to get to, and you walk out in front of four or five thousand Munster supporters. They're fanatical.
"I live in Cork, where rugby is about the fourth sport. About half the (Munster) team live in Limerick which is the rugby-mad place. Thomond Park - you run out in front of 13,000 and it sounds like 50,000," he told the New Zealand Herald.
"They're mad. It's an intimidating place for opposition teams."
...Cullen lining out for the All Blacks against South Africa in August 2000...
Having watched Ireland slump to a 45-7 defeat to the All Blacks last November, Cullen reckons Eddie O'Sullivan's men can give a better account of themselves when the two teams collide in Hamilton and Auckland over the next two weekends.
"Irish teams have done alright through the European Cup and Celtic League, and Ireland won the Triple Crown so they'll come here with a bit of confidence. They'll give it a better crack than they did in Dublin last year. But I don't know about beating the All Blacks.
"Maybe they will think they've got a good shot here. Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell are back, which will really boost their confidence."
Cullen rates his Munster team mate O'Connell highly. He explained: "O'Connell is one of their big guns. When he goes well, their whole team goes well. Ronan O'Gara and O'Driscoll are the others. O'Connell missed a few of the Munster games (through injury) and you could see the difference when he came back. There was a big change in the way the boys played.
"He plays hard and the boys follow him. He's an inspiration - awesome. He broke his thumb and banged up his shoulder, but he's fully fit now."
The Paraparaumu-born back knows all too well about shoulder injuries. "I picked up an injury in my last game in New Zealand, went over there and found it wasn't what we thought it was, so I had an operation. Came back, and did the other shoulder. It hasn't been a good run.
"I had a pretty good run with injuries in New Zealand, but I've hit a wall in Ireland. I'd been out for a while with the shoulder, injured my hamstring in training, then the calf, came right and, second game back, did a ligament in my ankle and missed the Heineken Cup final.
"It's just one of those things. It's a contact sport and blokes get hurt every weekend."
Cullen made his comeback from the shoulder injury in the Munster 'A' team's 29-26 defeat by Leinster 'A' in Roscrea in the spring. Asked about the fog at last weekend's Super 14 final and weather conditions in Ireland, he added: "I was quite disappointed when I turned on the telly (for the Super 14 final) and couldn't see anything. People in Ireland found it unbelievable. No matter how cold and frosty it gets there, I don't think I've ever seen fog like that. There weren't too many line breaks.
"It was like a cold day in Ireland, where the weather plays a big part and it's mostly penalties. The worst was one of my comeback games playing for Munster 'A' and it started sleeting into our faces. We're in the middle of nowhere, in this cow paddock, running around with...the wind, it goes right through you."
Cullen expects to attend one of the New Zealand-Ireland Test matches.
"I wouldn't say I've enjoyed being away from the All Blacks...but it's less pressure, being away from international rugby. It's all water under the bridge, a long time ago. I made my choice back then, I got over it then. It will be good to catch up with a few of the Irish lads. I'll pop up to one of these Tests and support whoever."
**Christian Cullen was talking to journalist Chris Rattue of the New Zealand Herald.**