Doug Howlett feature

January 12, 2009

Howlett still
relishing northern
exposure
AFTER the razzmatazz of his arrival died away, Doug Howlett had to settle in. A tally of 49 tries for the All Blacks is about as armour-plated as playing credentials can get, while posts and pitch markings in Cork are the same dimensions as they are in Auckland.

Life on the field wasn’t a problem. But life in civvies was different. Take the accents, for instance.

“My wife and I came over with an open mind,” says Howlett. “We didn’t have any preconceived ideas about what it was going to be like. The toughest thing was uprooting everything and leaving family behind to come here. Obviously I’d have a ready-made network of friends in my teammates, but for us as a couple it’s been a case of building friendships the longer we’ve been here.

“It was a challenge, but we’ve enjoyed it. Initially I found the accent quite tough, particularly some of the true-blue Corkonians like Tomás (O’Leary). I was surprised by the diversity of accents, from Northern Ireland to Dublin to here and everywhere in between. But that’s really enjoyable, it’s all part of the experience.”

His teammates helped. Frankie Sheahan invited him along to a Farmer’s Market in Cork, and Howlett and his Kiwi colleagues made it a regular gig. On weekends off he, Monique and son Charles did some exploring.

“I’m a boardie man, so it’s probably safe to say I’m not really a surfing man, but I like Garrettstown, it’s probably the nearest beach to us.

“We enjoyed the Ring of Kerry – that kind of ruggedness in the scenery reminded us of home — the Cliffs of Moher and places like Galway and west Cork. It’s nice to hop in the car and explore, but then that was one of the reasons we decided to come in the first place.”

Players like Dan Carter have mentioned the goldfish bowl effect of living in New Zealand, and the attractions of relative anonymity in Europe. Howlett sympathises.

“You’d have to understand New Zealanders, with rugby being the number one sport they feel they can come and talk to you about what you’re doing in games. Of course, Munster supporters can be like that, too.”

Munster supporters discussing Howlett’s performances can have few complaints. He was an integral part of the side which captured a second Heineken Cup back in May, and has been uniformly excellent in the red jersey.

Then came New Zealand last month. The lengthy build-up could have been crushing, but both sides
responded to the occasion, and the Munster haka which preceded that
encounter is already part of the mythology of Irish sport.

“It was emotional. I suppose we put it to the back of our heads all year until the week of the game, but when it came to it, performing the haka to my mates in the All Blacks was emotional and special. It’s something that may never happen again. For us to go through that, performing it, we wanted to be sure we had the support of the Munster team, management, everyone — it wasn’t just about us, it was important to have the support of everybody because at the end of the day we were representing Munster.”

The fact that the game actually lived up to those supercharged preliminaries was almost a bonus.

“I had all these thoughts running around my head — the day of the game we had lunch with the ‘78 team, and they’re a very tight group, even now. They spoke about their experiences, how they approached their game.

“At the end of the day, when Munster take the field, regardless of who they’re playing, they have a chance. We weren’t too concerned about the result as much as playing a good game — the result would look after itself.

“We took the first ten minutes, we had a sniff … then another, then it was half-time and we were right in the game. We went into it wanting to win, it wasn’t as if we were going to roll over. It was heartbreaking when we didn’t win.”

And yet that game on its own has sparked a debate on whether touring sides in the professional era should play midweek games against club or combined sides. Does Howlett support that argument?

“I do, but as far as people are aware that a lot of front-line players can’t play in those games. Week-to-week Test games are tough, but as the All Blacks did against us, there’s a tier just below those front-line players who need game time. A lot of those All Blacks would have grown in leaps and bounds for that game, while the Munster players benefited as well — it’s still an All Black jersey you’re playing against, it doesn’t matter who’s in it.”

There are other, more immediate considerations for the Kiwi. Connacht in the Magners League. The little matter of defending the Heineken Cup.

“We were quite happy to get through those back-to-back Clermont games, they’re an exceptional team. We’re looking forward to the Sale game and our destiny is in our own hands, which is great. Winning is a habit and it’s good to keep the
momentum going, but we have to be focused on the Magners League as well.”

The move north is one Howlett would encourage his countrymen to emulate.

“I’d definitely recommend it to other players back home. It (Europe) seems so far away when you’re playing in New Zealand but it’s hugely exciting. You’re playing different rugby in different grounds, you don’t know anything about your opponent.

“In ten years playing in New Zealand I got to know the opposition, the grounds, the weather conditions, everything. But it’s really refreshing here — even having my first game in Ulster snowed out — everything’s new.”

So is Christmas in the northern hemisphere. Their friends are rubbing it in — “I’m getting calls and texts from them, they’re all on the beach having barbecues,” – but the Howlett family is enjoying a festive season that’s more fireside than beachside.

“Ah, it’s exciting being in a winter climate. It’s great — and it’s probably even better this year because I have a son who’s one and a half, so he’s just getting to grips with Santa. So it’s special — and my mum managed to make the trip up for this year, so we have some family around us, which is great.”

Well settled in, all things considered

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