Thursday 25 December 2014

Sun sets on flying Kiwi's glorious career

Published 15/05/2013 | 05:00

The marvellous tributes that have been flowing since Doug Howlett confirmed his retirement were entirely predictable.

Few players have had as immediate and enduring an impact as the 34-year-old. Howlett has been six years with Munster – he joined after the 2007 World Cup – and he earned a special place in the affection of the supporters with a string of performances that fitted perfectly with the province and with his substantial reputation.

Nobody epitomised the concept of 'expansive rugby' more than Howlett when he arrived in Ireland in January 2008. Here was a player who was scarcely ever in disciplinary trouble, despite being central to the action whether he was playing with club (Auckland & Blues) or country.

Everyone recognised that Munster had signed a try-scoring legend. Indeed, his haul of 49 Test tries for New Zealand in 62 appearances is still a record for the All Blacks more than five years after he last played for them.

What wasn't so clear was how he would adapt to Munster's pragmatic style of play. The 2006 Heineken Cup champions were not renowned for their use of wingers.

He was supposed to make his debut at Ravenhill in a Celtic League fixture against Ulster on January 4, 2008 but a frozen pitch resulted in the game being called off.

Munster's next fixture was their Heineken Cup pool game against Clermont Auvergne in France on January 13. The Reds had lost their opening game against Wasps but wins over Clermont and Llanelli – home and away – meant their campaign was very much alive as they prepared for their Stade Marcel Michelin assignment.

Howlett was immediately installed in the team, albeit on the left wing, for a game that began to take an ominous turn almost from the kick-off as Clermont laid siege to the Munster line and ran up a 20-6 half-time lead.

Backdrop

It was against that backdrop that Howlett laid the seeds for his magnificent Munster career. He was not seen too much in attack but contributed handsomely to a huge defensive performance in the second 40 minutes as Munster rallied to secure a priceless losing bonus point.

Munster and Clermont finished their pool campaign level on 19 points. The Reds progressed because of the bonus point salvaged and went on to defeat Gloucester and Saracens and then beat Toulouse in the final.

Less than five months after making his debut, Howlett possessed a Heineken Cup winners' medal and had earned his place among the pantheon of Munster greats. He played 11 times for the province in that first season, scoring one Heineken Cup try in the quarter-final win over Gloucester, but his commitment to the cause was clear every time he wore the jersey.

His courageous performances resonated with the fans. He has been adding to his legend every season since.

The highlights reel of Howlett's Munster career is extensive. There's the spectacular run during the 2008 Heineken Cup final when he was denied a try, the shimmy and shake that saw him squeeze through a non-existent gap for one of his two scores against Northampton in the quarter-final of 2010.

His pace has diminished over the last couple of seasons but his defensive work remained exemplary, as emphasised by his hit on Saracens' Schalk Brits at Thomond Park this season. Howlett smashed into the South African with such force that the hooker was stopped in his tracks and driven back. It was as explosive a tackle as ever seen on a rugby pitch.

It is not possible to review Howlett's greatest moments without reflecting on the particularly special night – November 18, 2008 – when he led Rua Tipoki, Lifeimi Mafi and Jeremy Manning in a Haka against his native New Zealand at Thomond Park.

The sight of the four Kiwis stepping forward from the Munster ranks and throwing out the traditional Maori challenge was awe-inspiring for those 26,000 present. That Munster almost won the match (they lost 18-16) made it an even more memorable evening.

Howlett was also in the Munster team that defeated Australia at Thomond Park in November 2010. Such has been his impact since signing that he was named as Munster captain at the beginning of this season, becoming only the second foreign player to be granted the honour.

He won his 100th cap in the October 2012 against Leinster and ends his Munster career as the all-time second leading try scorer with 35 tries after five and a half seasons.

Howlett's influence on Munster has been so spectacular that you almost forget just how good he was before he pitched up in the northern hemisphere. All Black supporters remember his hat-trick of tries against Italy in 2007 at the World Cup when he overtook another former Munster player, Christian Cullen, as the record try-scorer for the All Blacks.

He is one of a select few – Rod Kafer, Brad Thorn – to have won the major tournaments in both hemispheres, the Super 14 (then 12) and the Heineken Cup. He won the Super 12 title with the Auckland Blues in 2003. He spent seven years as an All Black and scored 245 points over his 62 caps.

He played his last match two months ago but he will not be forgotten, the genius winger who was rated world-wide alongside the greatest names in the game – Brian O'Driscoll, Cullen, Richie McCaw, Serge Blanco.

His standing with Munster is secure, as it is with New Zealand: both have been blessed to have had his talents on show.

Irish Independent

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