18 May, 15:44
It's down to the wire now for the five contenders who have been shortlisted for the ultimate individual accolade in northern hemisphere rugby, ERC European Player of the Year 2013.
The story of his imminent arrival broke last summer. Enough time, you'd say, to get into a stew of expectation about one of the legends of rugby coming to your town and playing for your team. TheMunster fans were in an advanced state of excitement when Christian Cullen touched down in October.
You can picture their demeanour when four months later he actually got to play. Limerick's Thomond Park has long been the centre of Munster rugby excellence, so it was appropriate that Cork should get a look in at some stage.
So Musgrave Park got the gig: some 7,000 turned out to watch the new recruit make his debut in the Celtic League against the low-flying Ospreys.
A handy opener you would have thought. Yet it wasn't quite what the scriptwriters had in mind. The Ospreys went home with the points and Cullen looked like he was carrying the expectations of a multitude on his back for Munster's Heineken Cup quarter-final with Stade Francais. He managed that much. At last he is on the right track.
"The main thing for me was just getting through the game after four months off. Happily, that went fine and there are no problems with the shoulder," he says.
"I guess there was a bit of expectation riding on my shoulders but I was pretty realistic about it and what I could do. The one thing I was worried about was whether the shoulder would stand up and it did. I was a bit rusty and I knew it would take a few games to get the sharpness back and to read what the other players around me were doing."
His capture is, by a distance, the most significant transfer into Ireland since the provinces started looking abroad to beef up what they have at home. ~ Had he been a part of New Zealand's future, then coach Alan Gaffney wouldn't have bothered picking up the phone.
That he wasn't became apparent when the then-All Blacks coach John Mitchell left him out for the Test against Wales in Cardiff in 2002.
When Mitchell got it in the neck after New Zealand's failed World Cup campaign last year, he ascribed part of his failure to shortcomings with the media and sponsors. Certainly his attitude to the press was tense, but evidently his problems extended to dealings with some of his big-name players. Taine Randell, Jeff Wilson and Cullen all got the heave-ho in circumstances that followed this minimalist approach to player relations.
Not so much as a phone call. In Cullen's case, after 60 caps and an astonishing 48 tries, it was a gross insult.
It marked the coach out as one who saw only the smaller picture. Also it exposed his ignorance of how that picture should be composed.
In his autobiography Christian Cullen: Life on the Run, Cullen was scathing in his description of Mitchell's comment that he didn't owe the player a phone call. "Coming from an All Black coach I think he was a bit of a dick for saying that," wrote Cullen. "That's like saying everything that has ever been achieved in that jersey before he came along counts for nothing. It's like saying the heritage, the tradition, the winning record - everything that Adidas paid $100 million plus to be associated with - is worthless. The result of all this is that I didn't trust him. From day one."
He's unlikely to be dumped in similar fashion by Munster, for whom Cullen is the missing piece in the jigsaw. He is tasked with finishing the job in a competition where his abiding memory, coincidentally, featured his new employers. "We'd seen highlights from a few games from the competition on TV in New Zealand but I was touring over in the UK with the Barbarians when Neil Back did the old flick in the scrum (in the 2002 final). I've seen enough to know that quality of rugby is right up there.
'For me it wasn't like going to Japan where the quality of the footy is a bit lower. I still wanted to play at a high level and that's one of the reasons I came here. "I'm 28 now, so I'm pushing on a bit! People think I'm older because I've been around a while, but I was only 20 when I first got into the All Blacks line-up. I think I was tired back home and the experience of coming here has perked me up a bit."
Critically, he has lost none of his appetite. Now we are at the business end of the competition we will see theimpact he can make on opposing defences, and it won't lack ambition.
Once one of the most conservative teams on the planet, Munster have made a three-year investment in one of the sport's most gifted attackers.
"I remember Eric Rush saying to me when I started with the All Blacks that the second year would be the hardest - and if I was going well after that I'd have a future. If you can still beat people when they've figured you out, you're going pretty well. It's got harder for fullbacks, though: there aren't many holes left around these days. But there's always a time and a place to attack. Obviously, if you have a go, it's not going to work out every time but when it does you might be able to set up something. You can't always just bloody kick the ball back; you've got to have a crack every now and then."
That's why they bought him. â-