Saturday 3 December 2016

All Black Doug Howlett is a proud Irishman at heart

New Zealand legend says Erasmus making steady progress as Leinster date looms.

Published 05/10/2016 | 02:30

Doug Howlett was in Dublin yesterday to announce the upcoming rugby schedule which will be shown on eir Sport. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Doug Howlett was in Dublin yesterday to announce the upcoming rugby schedule which will be shown on eir Sport. Photo: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Whatever happens in the month of October, on whatever continent, on whatever day, Doug Howlett really can't lose.

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A proud, naturalised Irishman now, by way of Tongan descent and a lengthy, record-breaking scoring stint in the All Blacks jersey, the former flying wing can maintain a steady balance despite having a foot in both camps.

Now an ambassador for Munster - his co-ordinating efforts in sourcing funding helped the province develop their spanking new centralised Limerick base - he also has a Thomond Park date against the Maori All Blacks to anticipate, too.

"I can't lose," he confirms at Eir Sport HQ. "If Ireland tip the All Blacks, either in Chicago or here in Dublin, I couldn't not be happy."

And, while his country's record try-scorer (49) eyes the ever-accelerating Julian Savea (43), Howlett has been impressed with a winger much closer to home who has impressed with his pace on the field as much as the speed with which he has adapted to the professional game.

Darren Sweetnam's impressive rise to prominence this week saw him called up to Joe Schmidt's Ireland squad ahead of next November's dual continent assault on the greatest rugby squad ever assembled.

And, despite the ever-increasing wave of overseas players flooding the Irish game, he believes that a nascent star that has emerged on Ireland's doorstep could make the step up to the national team sooner rather than later.

"I think he's an exceptional talent," says Howlett, who in a previous guise would have husbanded Sweetnam and other emerging talents such as Cian Bohane and Ronan O'Mahony with the Munster 'A' side.

Munster’s Darren Sweetnam jumps with Zebre’s Edoardo Padovani on Thomond Park on Saturday. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Munster’s Darren Sweetnam jumps with Zebre’s Edoardo Padovani on Thomond Park on Saturday. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

"We've always known that in the three-four years he's been with us now. We're just starting to see the fruits of it. He's always been a great athlete, special awareness, all these things.

"There are some subtleties in rugby that he's learning and he's learning them quickly. It's allowing him to express himself. We saw it in the weekend just gone where he was allowed to.

"And he's picked up some good lessons along the way. I could point to Dragons when he got over the line - and I've no issue with it, because he was trying to help the kicker improve the angle - but he dropped the ball over the line.

"He'll never do it again. The type of guy he is, he's a sponge for information. I like his attitude, I like the risk that he took coming from hurling, where he was comfortable in, and it just says a lot about him. That he says, 'Listen, I want a new challenge, I can do this' and he's backed himself. Now he's just got to follow through but I like that.

"It's a competitive position out there nationally, and he can certainly put his name in the mix."

Howlett has been a keen observer of the latest attempt to inculcate a foreigner's coaching philosophy at Munster - as is the case in all the other provinces, as well as the national side - and believes that South African Rassie Erasmus will benefit from a subtler approach than his penultimate predecessor Rob Penney.

As Munster and Leinster ramp up their preparations for Europe, 2008 European champion Howlett is quietly impressed.

"The biggest shift I've seen is Rassie. As a new coach coming in to the environment, everyone's on guard. Like a new job, or when a new boss comes in. When a new coach comes in everybody's on guard because everyone is trying to prove a point. Experienced guys, internationals, academy players, guys pushing for position - they're all putting the best foot forward all the time, at every training.

"You've all reported that there has been an edge to training in the first few weeks. That's healthy and that's what Rassie has brought with his coaching staff.

"The best players at the time will get the starting job. That's the environment I grew up in and I think that's beneficial for the squad.

"The way Rassie has approached the game-plan has allowed him to create that edge. Rob came in and there was a big shift in terms of game-plan and how Munster were playing, to what he wanted.

"Rassie's game-plan, it's 'Do the basics well'. He puts a lot of emphasis on attitude, intent, all these great rugby words.

"That allows him to create the environment there is at the moment. It's simple enough, but with a lot of room to grow the game-plan. But then I'd look for a few twists as the season goes on."

Former Munster and All Blacks player Doug Howlett was in Dublin to announce eir Sport live coverage of Ireland v New Zealand on Saturday, November 5 in Chicago and Maori All Blacks v Munster on Friday, November 11. Visit eirsport.ie for more information.

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