FORMER ALL BLACKS and Munster winger Doug Howlett has been mixing work in the mining industry with an ambassadorial role with Munster Rugby. The 35-year-old, who retired from rugby last summer, remains an ardent Munster supporter but says he cannot call the result of Saturday’s interprovincial clash at Lansdowne Road.
The New Zealander scored 35 tries in 114 games with Munster after his arrival in early 2008. He went on to captain the province in his final season and led them to a Heineken Cup semi final. His retirement came alongside that of Marcus Horan and Mick O’Driscoll last season. David Wallace, John Hayes and Denis Leamy hung up the boots during the previous season. Head coach Rob Penney has overseen a period of huge change at the province but Howlett believes Munster’s next generation will prove worthy adversaries to Leinster’s squad of international stars.
He said, “[When] you come into these environments, you rely on the experienced people around you. Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray — they’ve all played international rugby and it’s nothing new to them.
“It’s just how they prepare for the game and, knowing Rob Penney, he’ll be preparing the team for the environment and — at the same time — it’s another game and we’ll be going through routine and our game-plan.”
Asked about Penney’s recent comments, in reference to Leinster’s strong representation in the Irish squad, that Munster will be facing the Six Nations champions, Howlett responds, “I don’t think that was Rob’s intention.” He added, “It was more of an observation I guess and when you look at the teams line out it will be close to it. But, in general, all Irish teams whatever it may be they tend to react better when they’re backed into a corner and they tend to put in a performance.”
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When Howlett first arrived at Munster, in 2008, the average make-up of the Ireland XV was six to seven Munster players in the pack and Ronan O’Gara at out-half. Leinster may have had Bernard Jackman or Malcolm O’Kelly in the front eight but neither were regulars. Limerick-born scrum-half Eoin Reddan was still with Wasps. The backline often featured Ulster’s Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble while Geordan Murphy played in fullback or wing. Leinster’s Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy were regulars while Girvan Dempsey and Rob Kearney were squad players.
“When I first came in,” Howlett recalled, “the majority of the Irish team was Munster based and, talking to Leinster players at the time, they often used it as motivation. That boiled over into the period where they won those Heineken Cups.
Taking that sort of logic, the roles are reversed a little where a lot of Munster guys want to play for the Irish team — they make no bones about that — and that’s what makes it a crucial game.”
Howlett feels Penney’s Munster have developed well over the past two seasons and ‘have got it right more often than not this year as opposed to last year’. Ahead of the weekend’s match and a home Heineken Cup quarter final with Toulouse, Howlett said, “The next two weeks will tell a lot of the success of the season.”
As for Saturday’s match-up, the 62-times capped New Zealand international admits it will not be easy for many players to settle back into their provincial tasks so soon after the high of a Six Nations-clinching victory in Paris. “You’re talking to a Munster fan,” he continued. “Obviously, I hope that what they have promised so often during the season can be put on to the field. That’s the major challenge for the team, they know they can do it but to do it on the day in such a big environment will be the challenge.
Howlett says he is only a phone-call away if Munster, or their players, ever need his advice but he has ruled out a move to coaching in the near future. He has no regrets about finishing up his playing career as he ‘played in a lot of big games over a 15 year period.
He commented, “There s not much more I wanted to achieve. These occasions obviously, they are great to be part of but I get just as much enjoyment out of Keith Earls taking the field in the number 14 jersey and maybe a small little bit of me helped him along his way to be that number 14 for Munster.
“I was happy with how I left the game. I guess I compartmentalise that and say ‘gee that was a great time in my life’. That has allowed me to be a great supporter.”
– Additional reporting by Fintan O’Toole