Schmidt can bring Zebo to another level – Howlett
HE IS out of it now and even on weeks like this Doug Howlett has no lingering regrets.
He played his last game of rugby a year ago on Saturday, scoring a try against Glasgow Warriors before suffering the shoulder injury that brought the curtain down.
His only rugby involvement now is as a commercial ambassador with Munster – he divides his time between that and his globe-trotting work with OCI, a natural resources investment firm, that has taken him all over Europe and to west Africa.
If the fire was to be re-ignited, you'd imagine that an inter-provincial derby at a packed Lansdowne Road followed by the visit of Toulouse to Thomond Park for a Heineken Cup quarter-final would do the trick.
So far, though, he is not feeling left out. Having played in plenty of these tribal affairs since landing in Ireland in 2008, Howlett knows what the players are going through – even if Irish selection was never at stake for himself.
His compatriot Rob Penney has stoked the fires with his comments on Saturday's meeting being "Munster v the Six Nations champions", but Howlett remembers the frustration going the other way and reckons it has fuelled the Pro12 champions' drive to dominate the Irish game.
"I don't think that was Rob's intention (to stir things up), it was more of an observation and when you look at the teams that line out it will be close to it," he said.
"In general, all Irish teams tend to react better when they're backed into a corner.
"When I first came in, 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.
"The roles are reversed a little where a lot of Munster guys want to play for the Irish team, and that's what makes it a crucial game."
Having worked under Joe Schmidt during his time with the Auckland Blues, Howlett is unsurprised by the gains made by the national team this year.
"I really do think that the World Cup will be an exciting time for the Ireland team," he said at the launch of AIG Ireland's partnership with the GUI and ILGU.
"They're starting to build a lot of depth; I've always said we've got some good athletes in Ireland and Joe is creating a challenging environment where you have to earn your spot each week.
"With depth of talent, you can challenge guys and that brings the best out of players."
Although a seasoned international by the time he worked with Schmidt immediately before moving to Ireland, Howlett says he took a lot from his time working under the man who would move to Clermont and on to Leinster before landing the Ireland job.
"I did think he always had the potential," the All Black record try-scorer explained. "He was one of the coaches who I learnt a lot off and it doesn't surprise me to see the success that he's having, firstly with Leinster, and now with Ireland. He just challenges you at that level."
One Munster player out in the cold who Howlett feels could learn from the master is Simon Zebo.
"I have no doubt, 100pc," he said of Schmidt's potential to work well with Zebo. "I do know that he is very keen and he is right on the edge of proving he's capable of wearing an Ireland shirt again.
"We all have things to work on, but you look at what he does bring: he has the ability to break the line and to finish, which are prime ingredients you need when you're a winger. You need to be able to finish off opportunities, and he can do that in spades.
"He has a few games under his belt, he has primed himself, he's sharp and I think this weekend could be a big stage for him."
It was once Howlett's stage, but he's happy to hand it over to the next generation and reckons Munster are in good hands.
"These occasions are great to be part of but I get just as much enjoyment out of Keith Earls taking the field in the No 14 jersey – maybe a small little bit of me helped him along his way to be that No 14 for Munster," he said.
"The strength of Munster is the young guys who have come through the academy – Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray, Simon Zebo, Tommy O'Donnell, JJ Hanrahan, Dave Foley... it goes on.
"They have been in the system, they know what Munster's about. They are now driving the team on.
"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'."