Adopted Rebel Howlett firmly
behind Cork
crusade

HALF a world away from New Zealand, he still can’t cheer for a team in green and gold. All Black legend Doug Howlett had many a Bledisloe Cup clash with the Wallabies: he knows a rivalry when he sees one.

Hence the New Zealander’s enjoyment of Cork’s Munster semi-final win over Kerry. Based in Cork while he plays for Munster, Howlett quickly appreciated the hold GAA exerted in his new home.

“The first thing that struck me when I came out of Cork Airport when I arrived was the big statue of Christy Ring — that emphasised for me just how big the GAA sports are here.

“Cork being my local town while I’m with Munster, I decided to follow the local teams in hurling and football. And with the Munster squad everybody’s got their own team, so it’s obviously more fun when you’ve got your own team and your own opinions. And I’m aligned with Cork.”

His commitment means just one thing for his teammates: ammunition.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of banter about everyone’s GAA team. Denis Leamy is a big Tipperary fan while you’ve got plenty of guys from Limerick cheering on their sides.

“As a sportsman you appreciate what these guys bring to their sports — the footballers’ kicking skills and fitness levels, obviously. I just enjoy being part of the crowd.”

Given the number of high-pressure games Howlett has played over the years at all levels, being just another spectator must be a welcome change.

“Exactly. That’s what I really enjoy — somebody else is putting on the show, not Munster, and it’s the other side of sport. I can sit back and enjoy the occasion and relax with a cup of tea — and have an opinion on the game.

“I got to the Kerry game down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh — I’d heard of the history between the teams, and the lads with Munster said it was definitely a game worth going to, and I really enjoyed it. I met a few of the Kerry lads as well, and they’re a good bunch. But I can’t support two teams.

“I’d seen the drawn game, and that really added to it, that there was so much at stake. The replay was a great game, as they all are at this stage coming into the semi-finals.”

As has been pointed out many times in the past by others, Howlett was struck by how suitable many GAA players would be for rugby.

“Of course — coming from a country which has rugby as its major sport, and where athletes are pushed into rugby, I can see that here it’s much more diverse, and you have three or four different sports athletes can choose from.

“Looking at GAA athletes, they’re well suited to rugby, it’d be interesting to see them with a rugby ball and how they’d do.”

The star winger has his favourites on the Cork side, but rules out taking up hurling any time soon.

“I like Graham Canty a lot, he’s a real workhorse that leads from the front and doesn’t slow down for the entire game, he’s one player I enjoy watching.

“If I were playing Gaelic football myself … I don’t know, I think I’d be able to get on the ball, but then it’d be a question of what to do with it after that! I’d see myself up front, or maybe midfield — though I mightn’t have the height for midfield.

“Hurling? I don’t think so — hurleys are often brought out at Munster training and I’m well put in my place by the likes of Denis (Leamy) and Tomás O’Leary.”

Howlett hasn’t lost focus when it comes to the day job, given it’s getting to a stage in the year when thoughts are turning to rugby — at all levels.

“We’re back with Munster and ready to go, a lot of the pre-season work is done, and we’ll be ready for the new season.

“There’s a pretty good start to the season today actually in Highfield, with the Meteor Munster Sevens tournament. That’ll be a good day out for rugby fans.”

And tomorrow? Is the Kiwi Cork fan going Upper Hogan or Lower Cusack?

“I don’t have a ticket for tomorrow actually,” he says. “I’m a bit cheeky, I’m hoping to wait for the final.”

Waiting for the final? Sure you’re not a Kerry supporter?

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HALF a world away from New Zealand, he still can’t cheer for a team in green and gold. All Black legend Doug Howlett had many a Bledisloe Cup clash with the Wallabies: he knows a rivalry when he sees one.

Hence the New Zealander’s enjoyment of Cork’s Munster semi-final win over Kerry. Based in Cork while he plays for Munster, Howlett quickly appreciated the hold GAA exerted in his new home.

“The first thing that struck me when I came out of Cork Airport when I arrived was the big statue of Christy Ring — that emphasised for me just how big the GAA sports are here.

“Cork being my local town while I’m with Munster, I decided to follow the local teams in hurling and football. And with the Munster squad everybody’s got their own team, so it’s obviously more fun when you’ve got your own team and your own opinions. And I’m aligned with Cork.”

His commitment means just one thing for his teammates: ammunition.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of banter about everyone’s GAA team. Denis Leamy is a big Tipperary fan while you’ve got plenty of guys from Limerick cheering on their sides.

“As a sportsman you appreciate what these guys bring to their sports — the footballers’ kicking skills and fitness levels, obviously. I just enjoy being part of the crowd.”

Given the number of high-pressure games Howlett has played over the years at all levels, being just another spectator must be a welcome change.

“Exactly. That’s what I really enjoy — somebody else is putting on the show, not Munster, and it’s the other side of sport. I can sit back and enjoy the occasion and relax with a cup of tea — and have an opinion on the game.

“I got to the Kerry game down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh — I’d heard of the history between the teams, and the lads with Munster said it was definitely a game worth going to, and I really enjoyed it. I met a few of the Kerry lads as well, and they’re a good bunch. But I can’t support two teams.

“I’d seen the drawn game, and that really added to it, that there was so much at stake. The replay was a great game, as they all are at this stage coming into the semi-finals.”

As has been pointed out many times in the past by others, Howlett was struck by how suitable many GAA players would be for rugby.

“Of course — coming from a country which has rugby as its major sport, and where athletes are pushed into rugby, I can see that here it’s much more diverse, and you have three or four different sports athletes can choose from.

“Looking at GAA athletes, they’re well suited to rugby, it’d be interesting to see them with a rugby ball and how they’d do.”

The star winger has his favourites on the Cork side, but rules out taking up hurling any time soon.

“I like Graham Canty a lot, he’s a real workhorse that leads from the front and doesn’t slow down for the entire game, he’s one player I enjoy watching.

“If I were playing Gaelic football myself … I don’t know, I think I’d be able to get on the ball, but then it’d be a question of what to do with it after that! I’d see myself up front, or maybe midfield — though I mightn’t have the height for midfield.

“Hurling? I don’t think so — hurleys are often brought out at Munster training and I’m well put in my place by the likes of Denis (Leamy) and Tomás O’Leary.”

Howlett hasn’t lost focus when it comes to the day job, given it’s getting to a stage in the year when thoughts are turning to rugby — at all levels.

“We’re back with Munster and ready to go, a lot of the pre-season work is done, and we’ll be ready for the new season.

“There’s a pretty good start to the season today actually in Highfield, with the Meteor Munster Sevens tournament. That’ll be a good day out for rugby fans.”

And tomorrow? Is the Kiwi Cork fan going Upper Hogan or Lower Cusack?

“I don’t have a ticket for tomorrow actually,” he says. “I’m a bit cheeky, I’m hoping to wait for the final.”

Waiting for the final? Sure you’re not a Kerry supporter?

don’t think we’re operating anywhere near our optimum’

THE right foot is encased in a white running shoe just this side of groovy, and obscured by a table leg.

One week ago, however, it was watched by all of Ireland. Ronan O’Gara’s late, late drop-goal ended six decades of disappointment to secure Ireland’s second-ever Grand Slam but now, however, he’s talking about last autumn, and his call for Irish players to buy into the jersey.

It was typical O’Gara: outspoken, rigorous, challenging, but always thinking of the team.

“Everyone can see that this team’s been different in this Six Nations compared to previous years,” he says. “We’ve been looking to ourselves to do that.

“But the reason you’d say these things isn’t for controversy. I’d say these things because time is ticking for me — when I hang up my boots I want to have medals, and it’s only in the last few years that we’ve started to gather medals. That’s the critical difference.

“I don’t say things for the sake of getting opinions out there. I only comment when I feel there’s a valuable input to be made. I didn’t say those things to the media, either — I said it to the players, we had a few weeks to think about things, and then there was a meeting over Christmas and barriers were broken down.

“There was an honesty policy in the squad, and once that’s there you could see fellas in green play for each other similar to the way fellas in red play for each other. I haven’t been in an Irish camp where that’s been as prominent in a long while.”

Not surprisingly, he points to a fellow Corkman’s influence over the squad as critical. O’Gara acknowledges what Declan Kidney has brought to the table for Ireland.

“He’s brought in a new management team, a new squad — a lot of new players — and made everyone feel part of it. And at times that was even frustrating, because you might have 40 fellas at training and from a selfish point of view all I’d be really concerned with would be the first fifteen, or the match-day 22. It’s difficult enough to run that but Deccie was on about the squad and we got a great squad ethos going.

“He and his staff brought that, and that’s what separates him from other coaches, his ability to run a tight, friendly ship.

“He’s always been grounded, but I think he’s had a gradual progression, which probably helps — he’s had disappointments as well and he’s learned from them. And now he’s reaping the rewards.”

Rewards. There have been many suggestions that rugby in general and players in particular will benefit from the Grand Slam. Has the enormity of the win sunk in yet?

“Not at all. I don’t think there’s a realisation. I remember that it hit me for the first European Cup, but for this it took probably until Tuesday, and it seems to be getting sweeter every day.

“A few of us, probably led by Brian, Paul and myself, needed to win a Grand Slam to have credibility on a European or world stage. That would be something factual, rather than an opinion, about players; as much as people have opinions about players, what certain players have achieved is not up for debate, and this is something for the positive locker.

“It’s something that can’t be taken away. A nice feeling.”

The Ireland dressing-room after the win last Saturday wasn’t manic, he says, but suffused with an inner happiness. It was a mood in keeping with how the season had unfolded.

“There was no panic during the campaign, which was weird. There have been plenty of games in which myself and Paulie would have snapped at each other, but last Saturday with five minutes left he called the pattern of play, and it was a drop-goal pattern. No drama.

“That shows composure under pressure, because strictly speaking there should have been a bit of panic.”

OF the previous games, the most frustrating for O’Gara was the England clash, where he landed just two kicks out of six.

“That was the only one that was close, and that was down to me not kicking points. We were 10 points minimum a better team than them, and I never felt we were going to lose, but they got a last-minute try that put a different spin on the scoreboard.

“Afterwards I was disappointed and frustrated — and a little lost compared to other times in the past, when I knew what was going wrong.

“I’d say that week I’d taken over 100 kicks at goal and probably missed three. I was shocked — not from a cocky point of view — but if I’d known what to correct I’d have done it there and then.

“Maybe I was too relaxed against England. It’s a fascinating thing – I try to talk to a few people about it, and what I’d link goal-kicking to is golf. Line-kicking or kicking from the hand isn’t really like goal-kicking, and golfers have told me that during the season there are times when they’re not too sure when their drives are going, while other times it’s easy.

“It’s the same with goal-kicking — some days it’s easy, while other days you think you feel you’re doing the exact same thing but … as my dad says to me, though, you’re not a machine. The body feels different some days, and you just have to trust it.”

HE had to be trusted last Saturday. O’Gara has often been targeted by other teams, but Wales looked to send runners down his channel at every opportunity. Hardly a surprise, he says.

“No, it makes sense for them to go after me. Me, Brian (O’Driscoll), Gordon (D’Arcy) and Wally (David Wallace) are the line of four, so it doesn’t take a genius to work
out where to run. We do that,
too.

“Our coaches have a fair idea that we’ll know who to go after — (Stephen) Jones is a good defender but we went after him rather
than (Gavin) Henson or (Tom) Shanklin.”

Jones is a good kicker as well. As he lined up that potentially heart-breaking penalty from halfway with time all but up, his Irish counterpart felt exactly what Irish supporters everywhere felt.

“Sick. I don’t know if the occasion got to the ref, but we shouldn’t have won that game on penalty count alone, something
like 16-5, some of them bad decisions. The ref is such an important figure at this level, but that gives a team field position, territory — all important elements in a tight game.”

And what next?

“People are probably asking ‘where to for this team now’, but I can genuinely say this is a starting point – in terms of game planning, creativity, I don’t think we’re operating anywhere near our optimum.”

Outspoken. Rigorous. Challenging. Always thinking of the team.

IN THE SPOTLIGHT: “I’m not always calm. You can ask some of the lads about that. I’ve let my emotions run away with me. But that’s not doing anyone any good.”
THE NEW IRELAND RUGBY COACH ISN’T A MAN TO SEEK THE LIMELIGHT; FOR HIM IT’S ALL ABOUT
THE PLAYERS.
MICHAEL MOYNIHAN SPOKE TO DECLAN KIDNEY ABOUT LIFE
AT THE TOP OF THE COACHING TREE

DECLAN KIDNEY isn’t long setting out his stall. Over a cup of tea in a Cork hotel, he stresses what’s important when it comes to coaching: “It’s all about the team and the players. They’re the ones doing all the work.”

Still, people are curious about the new Ireland coach. The man who made his name steering Munster to glory in Europe now holds the top job in Irish rugby, but that doesn’t mean he’s lost the run of
himself. He still prepares properly: take the games he attends as a spectator.

“Before the November series, myself and Les (Kiss) were at games, preparing notes as to what we might say if we were going
into dressing-rooms at half-time — so you’re still used to it. You don’t want to be experimenting.

“But at half-time there’s no point in trying to flood fellas with information. They’ve broken their melt in the first half, so how much information can they take in? It needs to be fairly precise, and sometimes it’s as simple as ‘keep at what you’re doing’.”

Kidney can isolate a couple of crucial events which were vital in terms of the experience he gained as a coach.

“The two games I remember are Munster against Castres, the year after we’d been to the final in Twickenham. We were something like 21-3 down at half-time. We’d made two mistakes and they’d scored two tries, and it was a matter of recognising that.

“On the law of averages the opposition would make two mistakes and we had to capitalise on that, and the ploy was to stay with it.

“To me that was a huge match. In the Twickenham season we got on a roll but the following season we could have
capitulated, and we didn’t.

“Then you had the Clermont game last season. They were flying, but we had turned the ball over so much in the first 20 minutes, and in the 10 minutes before half-time, when we did hang onto the ball, we made huge inroads.

“So our feeling was, ‘well, we can’t do anything about the first 20 minutes, but let’s hang onto the ball and see how much we can claw back’. And the players did that.”

Kidney’s bow at the end of last year’s Heineken Cup final wasn’t the dramatic farewell it appeared to be (“My family was in a certain section, I saw them, it was a bit of a family slag”), but there’s been plenty of emotion along the way. He had some practice when it came to leaving Munster behind.

“I’d a bit of experience of that. In 2002 myself and Niallo (Donovan) knew it was our last game, we were going to be
involved with Ireland. It sounds cold, but you have to remove yourself from that.

“The fact that it (the 2008 Heineken Cup final) was my last game . . . it was about an hour later in the dressing-room that that creeped in. I’d kept it away
before that.

“That might sound cold. I’d hate to say it’s a skill. It’s a necessity. You have to do it. It’s a facet of life – how do paramedics keep their cool at accidents, for instance? Because there’s a job to be done. In my case I’ve to keep an eye on the game, see if substitutions need to be made and talk at half-time.

“I’m not always calm. You can ask some of the lads about that. I’ve let my emotions run away with me. But that’s not doing anyone any good.”

What does players good is balance, a key word in the Kidney lexicon.

He expands on the advantages Irish players can exploit.

“You can give people too much information, so it’s a case of getting the balance right so they’re organised, but not so organised they’re thinking ‘what should I do next’ rather than playing what’s in front of them.

“As an Irish team we play best when we’re doing that. Genetically we’re not as big as some sides we play, though we work hard in the gym.

“But then a lot of our fellas come from a GAA background which gives them a vision other countries’ players don’t have, and I’d hate to take that away from them; you can coach that out of them.

“Niall Ronan’s try against Clermont, which was a hugely important score, that was a Gaelic try. He used all his
footballing instincts for it.

“A lot of Irish players have played
soccer, Gaelic football, hurling, and I want to encourage them to let those skills come out — as well as lads who have played nothing but rugby. If we’re not as big genetically then we must use other skills.

“You’ve to marry the old — our
madness, which did us alright for 100 years — and better organisation, without ruling out the madness. And also having the bit of crack. Irish teams are better when they’re having a bit of crack.”

The perfect example of mixing skills is Denis Leamy, who frequently takes kick-offs as though he were playing in Semple Stadium rather than Lansdowne Road.

“You’d encourage him to say his percentage of dropping the ball falls if he turns sideways as it could go backwards,” says Kidney. “Then again, the one or two he takes over his head, the momentum that gives the team . . . there was an
incident in that Clermont game when he just got the ball and ran, and that brought us into the game.

“The advantage of that is that it’s
spontaneous. Nowadays, with analysis, everything is pre-planned, so something like that can help. There’s an advantage in soccer in that you don’t announce your team until an hour before kick-off. If you had that in rugby you’d open the game up a bit.”

Announcing or picking your team is probably the biggest choice that a coach faces, of course. Kidney is clear-eyed on the calls he has to make.

“You make the best choices, what you feel is the best. If you feel you’ll get it right all the time you’re not dealing with reality. Nobody makes the right decision all the time.

“I was asked to do the job based on
decisions I’ve made before and I’ll continue to make the best decisions I can, in the hope that’ll ensure the players play to the best of their ability. That’s the coach’s role. If you can do that you’re successful.”

It must be frustrating, though, when a decision doesn’t come off and the critics don’t have all the information that the coach had when he made the decision.

“Any time you have a job that you like — that it’s a privilege to do — there’ll still be another side to the job. That’s true of everybody’s job.

“A lot of it is okay, you’d think ‘on the basis of what they see that’s a fair opinion, but there’s more to it than that’. It’s when it’s over the top, somebody taking a view on the basis they know everything . . . but that’s life.”

“Criticism is part and parcel of it. The question is where does it cross respect.”

The games back in November attracted some criticism. He accepts the win over Argentina wasn’t entertaining but rejects the notion that encounter was the be-all and end-all of the autumn series.

“I thought they were all big games. Just being Irish, the anthem’s being played . . . I wouldn’t underestimate that. It’s a big thing. We were so disappointed with the previous week (against New Zealand), when we got to the Argentina game we wanted to do better, but some teams are very difficult to play against.

“You have to play a certain way to get a result, because if you go all flowery you can get beaten. I know that was an awful game as such, but to the real rugby person who knows what has to be done, it wasn’t so bad. The forwards fronted up to the
Argentina pack and the backs played it where the forwards needed it to be played.

“We won it with the score we won it by, and we were only semi-pleased. We won it knowing we could play better, so you’re
into ‘potential’. You judge potential by the scores on the board, and that’s what we’ll be judged on.

“There was a sense of relief but relief would mean we weren’t looking forward to it, going into it. We wanted to win because we knew it could have been important with the luck of the draw, but some of the older lads were also saying they wanted to win one of these games against a team ranked above us.”

SINCE then the players have scattered back to provinces and clubs. He’s looking forward to seeing them again, particularly as there’s a week to prepare before the first outing.

“They’ve played four Heineken Cup games to qualify. We’re lucky, they’ve all done well — Ulster have come on a ton, Connacht are doing well, and then you’ve Munster and Leinster — so they’ve played a lot of rugby.

“It’s different to soccer, it’s physical
contact, so we’ll add on to what we’ve done. But it’s helpful to meet up the week you don’t actually have a game, because it gives you time to stand back and look at what’s happening, to air views and so on.”

That doesn’t mean you’re divorced from the emotion, of course. The coach readily admits that the occasion had an impact in his first outing as boss.

“The one in Thomond Park, I had to tell myself to cop myself on. The one against Canada caught me — I was
looking around to see if there were any cameras on me, but I managed to get back in. … but you have to stay
composed.”

True to form, the coach brings the conversation back once more to his
players. “It’s a strange word,
professionalism, isn’t it? … We have some lads involved with teams in Ireland who aren’t paid, but they’re brilliant.

“The players’ thirst for knowledge, to improve, borders on the obsessive… The players are always looking for the edge — tactically, technically, every way.”

No better man to help them do just that.

O’Gara story a tale of growth and honesty
THERE WAS a time when rugby union autobiographies were pretty few and far between, and with good reason.

Administrators were quite willing to brandish a rulebook which could get
players banished on the grounds of professionalism and profiting from the sport if they brought out a memoir.

Since the advent of recognised professionalism within rugby, however, there have been a fair scatter of My Stories, though some have been better than others.

In his heart of hearts, Gavin Henson probably regrets the relatively premature publication of My Grand Slam Year — or My Grand Slam Kick, as it quickly became known. Ulster and Ireland’s Paddy Johns’ book, The Quiet Enforcer, wouldn’t last you on the train from Cork to Mallow.

Ronan O’Gara’s autobiography is the latest to hit the shelves and thankfully, the Munster and Ireland out-half’s story is on the opposite end of the spectrum to the likes of Henson and Johns. Smoothly
written, with the aid of Denis Walsh, the book
is open and honest and
not lacking in the ‘so-I-said-to-Austin-Healey’ anecdotes that readers enjoy.

The lingering impression from the book is one of growth. From a youngster happy enough as a student with his Munster contract and a car* — who wouldn’t be, in those circumstances — to the rigorous self-examinations of the last few years, O’Gara traces a slow,
deliberate, incremental maturing.

Having come of age just as the professional era came into view, O’Gara’s story doesn’t have the obvious challenge of changing from amateur to professionalism, but in its own way it charts a harder course — the
learning curve which showed him and other
players that accepting a
pay packet didn’t make you professional, but behaving like a professional athlete did. He makes a passing reference to the current mindset, wherein players don’t even consider eating a muffin for fear of the damage it would do to their system.

It wasn’t always that way. The out-half is honest enough to recall letters from the IRFU reminding him of his professional obligations as a contracted player when his fitness test scores weren’t up to scratch.

Refreshingly, O’Gara gives hard-and-fast numbers to back that up; never likely to be mistaken for John Hayes in silhouette, a fascinating strand to the book details the player’s efforts to beef up and overcome a naturally slim build. Nine years ago his top bench pull was 80 kg, and he’s honest enough to tell readers that that was 10 kg behind the next player on the list. In those fitness tests he was last in the 15-metre sprint. And last in the 30-metre sprint.

It’s eloquent testament that long, dreary hours in the gym that O’Gara was able to put 10 metres’ distance on his kicking.

O’GARA is upfront about the disgraceful behaviour of L’Equipe, which published loose rumours about the player’s private life during the last Rugby World Cup, and he’s open about the infamous Duncan McRae incident on the 2001 Lions tour — “Why didn’t I hit him when he was pucking the head off me? I don’t know. I still don’t know.”

As a sports autobiography, straight between the posts.

*Incidentally, O’Gara’s
ultimate aim in terms of motoring cool at that point, back in the mid-nineties, was a Ford Mondeo.

Without being a complete name-dropper, the same Mr O’Gara, through a combination of odd circumstances, gave this
column a lift to Cork city centre from Musgrave Park a couple of years ago.

He was then driving the kind of vehicle Daniel Craig uses in James Bond movies to pull up in front of a casino, and when we stopped by the courthouse I saw him eyeing what looked like an ejector button for the passenger seat.

I hopped out so fast I can’t remember if I said thanks or not. But if I didn’t, well, just for the record: I appreciated it.

Ronan O’Gara:
My Autobiography (Transworld Ireland) is in
the shops now.

Contact:
michael.moynihan@examiner.ie