WHEN DOUG HOWLETT was officially named captain of Munster it came as a shock to absolutely no-one involved with the province.
The New Zealander is now in his fifth season with the province and, when the announcement was made in August, he spoke about his immense pride in following on from ‘Paul (O’Connell), Axel (Foley), Mick Galwey and Jim Williams’.
With O’Connell making tentative steps back to fitness and players such as Jerry Flannery and Denis Leamy retiring in the past season, the 34-year-old is a key figure in a squad under construction.
The season started on a few positive notes and signs of coach Rob Penney’s attacking intent were apparent. However, an away day against Ospreys last weekend has caused flutters ahead of their Aviva Stadium clash with Leinster.
Howlett described the 30-15 humbling by the Pro12 champions as ‘a sideways step’ and is aware that a win at the Aviva this evening would be viewed as a massive leap forward for Munster.
“How we played the game wasn’t how we discussed it beforehand so it was a wake-up call ahead of this week and the weeks ahead,” he told TheScore.ie.
His team are in a transitional phase but not every corner is for second gear turns. Howlett said:
A real challenging game like this is what we need to find out exactly where we are. We had a little taster of that earlier in the season against Ulster, when we were short by one point – a torrid affair and all that.
“We’re expecting the same this week.”
Reaching the levels of last season
Leinster coach Joe Schmidt will be hoping that his side are capable of making Saturday torrid for Munster, especially as they were on the receiving end of a shellacking by Connacht in Galway last Friday.
In the lead-up to the Munster clash, Schmidt lamented the lack of selection consistency that has unsettled his side.
“It is important,” he said, “not to look too far ahead towards what we can do or what we can win this season without first getting back to the levels of rugby that served us so well last season.”
The timing of this home clash against Howlett and his Munster side is similar to last season (4 November rather than 6 October).
Schmidt would be delighted if his side could tough its way through 80 minutes, as they did in their Jonathan Sexton inspired 24-19 win last year, ahead of another challenging Heineken Cup campaign.