WHILST disappointed that an arm injury sustained in January during a Scotland under-20s internal squad game brought his Premiership season with Jed-Forest to a premature end, teenage winger Mason Cullen will still look back on his first campaign in senior rugby as a generally positive experience.
The Borderers have had a bit of a ‘stop-start’ year due to Covid concerns so did not challenge for top four in the way they would have liked. However, they have shown in patches in 2021-22 that they are more than a match for any team in the league on their day and Cullen is just one of a number of young players to have broken through to the first XV.
“I have been at Jed-Forest since I played for the Jed Thistle under-18s for a season and a half before the pandemic hit in March 2020,” explained Cullen, a centre growing up who has recently been playing winger. “When I first moved to Jed I was still 16 and did not know too many people, but I loved my first couple of training sessions with the under-18s and just went from there, it is a very welcoming club.
“When things were shut down for the first time nearly two years ago it was frustrating because I was trying to force my way into the Scotland under-18 picture, but it was the same for all young sports people and I just had to shift my goals.”
He made sure that lockdown period was not wasted, linking up with older brother Reiss – who recently picked up his first two caps for Scotland on the World Sevens Series – to do some socially distanced fitness work.
“Reiss lives close to the rest of the family in Carluke, which is not far from Biggar, so during the early lockdowns the two of us and our little brother [16-year-old Isaac who plays for Biggar under-18s] would do training sessions there outside and it helped keep me ticking over,” he recalled.
“When I heard that the 2021-22 season was going to be back to ‘normal’ I was excited to get a proper pre-season under my belt with the Jed senior squad and try and push for first team honours.
“I played quite a few games before getting injured and enjoyed testing myself against some of the best club sides in Scotland and also learning about how to play winger effectively in adult rugby.”
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As well as getting tips from some the experienced backline players around him at Jed, such as brothers Lewis and Gregor Young and Robbie Shirra Gibb, Cullen also believes playing Rugby League has helped him improve in union too.
He turned out for Scotland under-19s in the 13-man code against England in October and said: “It has helped my ability to find space on the pitch. I am now better at scanning the whole pitch and seeing where holes might appear to attack into.
“Positioning is also a big thing in rugby league and I enjoy playing both sports. I think I have managed to transition some of my league skills into my union play.”
Cullen is hoping to get back from his injury in time for some Kings of the Sevens action in April and May. It is perhaps unsurprising to hear, given his brother’s sevens prowess, that Cullen likes the shortened form of the game too. And he takes great inspiration from the rugby journey Reiss, now 25, has been on, including a spell with Bristol Bears in the professional ranks in England.
“Reiss has had a great career so far, there have been highs and lows though and he has had to work for everything that has come his way, so I really admire the resilience he has shown,” the Edinburgh University first year pharmacology student said.
“He has always carried himself well, worked hard and has a good attitude and I try to do the same things, too. To see him do well in Super6 2021 with Watsonians and then earn his Scotland Sevens chance has just been brilliant, he deserves it.”
Cullen’s love of rugby began at local club Biggar before he moved to Currie – now the Chieftains – to play. He was at Malleny Park until his under-16 year and his age-grade team were pretty much unstoppable from under-13s right through to that older age.
He is now looking forward to the future with Jed-Forest and is certainly a name to keep an eye out for in the coming years.