Cullen copes well as NZ's centre of attention
Put yourself in Kayla Cullen's shoes today.
Before this month she had barely played centre. Not at school, club or for the Northern Mystics.
Being thrown into a foreign role at international level is a daunting prospect. For most it would be hard to grasp.
But, so far, Cullen's youth and relaxed persona have seen her handle the new task with aplomb.
"Before I got on the court it was pretty scary. I haven't really had any court time there. It's challenging, but relatively fun," Cullen said with her usual calm demeanour.
Silver Ferns coach Waimarama Taumaunu believes Cullen's future lies in the pivotal midcourt role and thrust her into the position for the first time in the Quad Series, in an attempt to build depth after Camilla Lees stepped up in the 2-1 Constellation Cup series' triumph.
After four relatively comfortable quarters at centre, two each against South Africa and the weakened English, who are missing their three best players, Cullen faces the biggest test of her fledgling career in front of over 13,000 fans in Sydney today.
It's one thing to perform against lesser opponents; it's another entirely to remain composed in the white-hot heat the Diamonds will apply.
Cullen is, again, likely to line up alongside Laura Langman and Anna Harrison. This will be a sizeable challenge for the 20-year-old.
"She's very inexperienced there and still very young," Taumaunu said. "She shows a lot of natural ability and a nice eye for space and feeding, but the benchmark is Australia so we'll see how we get through this weekend."
It would be a major risk to start rookie Bailey Mes, who is still finding her feet in this arena. Anna Thompson is the other option at wing attack, but her lack of court time suggests that is unlikely.
Cullen's best asset is her unflappable nature.
She started out shooting goals, then switched to the defensive end and is now expected to fully flourish at centre. That constant change could be unsettling, but it has instead given Cullen a unique appreciation for the subtle nuances of each diverse role, and allowed her to anticipate what team-mates require.
"I feel like I've been thrown around everywhere," she said. "Since I've played pretty much every position I know what the shooters and defenders want and don't like. I can read what they are doing. It's a bit easier.
"In the long run they do want me as a centre, but it's up to the individual coach to decide where to play me.
"This will be a huge challenge. I'm not too sure how I'll match up against [Kimberly] Green, or whoever they put at centre. I'm a lot more confident in that position now I know what I'm doing. Laura has helped me out a lot."
While the Quad Series is a four-team tournament, it was only ever going to be contested by two.
Today's clash will provide perspective on what has been a patchy tournament for the Ferns.
Victory in Sydney would not only maintain the momentum they gained in the Constellation Cup, after securing their first series win over the Aussies for eight years, but also place one hand on the trophy.
Taumaunu is viewing this match as a trial run of sorts, with the 2015 world championship final to be hosted at the same venue.
"If the result goes well we could look to be a bit more innovative in Hamilton."
Sunday Star Times