Doug Howlett: 'We have to think big if we want to stay where we are'
One morning a couple of months ago, New Zealander Doug Howlett drove through Newlands Cross en route to unique gathering in Dublin's city centre.
When he retraced his journey some hours later, he did so as an Irish citizen, one of thousands conferred that day.
A journey that began with photographers snapping the arrival of a global superstar in Shannon Airport some six years ago had turned full circle.
A different place defines him now. Perhaps it is time for an updated Munster flag. "New Zealand by birth, Munster – and Ireland – by the grace of God."
As he gravely recited the oath – "I solemnly declare my fidelity to the Irish nation and my loyalty to the State and I undertake to faithfully observe the laws of the state and to respect its democratic values" – he thought of his family, wife Monique, and his four kids, Charles (six), Ruby Sue (four), two-year-old Thomas and Samuel, born just a few months ago.
And, though Blackrock in Cork is now his permanent home, he also thought of his birthplace, where his legend was spawned and where his parents and his in-laws still reside.
Ask him to describe Irishness and no words accelerate to his lips; instead, an intense feeling of recollection overcomes him.
His family congregated on the beach on a beautiful, sun-dappled Auckland day, thousands of miles away from the brutal Munster winter. Then Charles prodded his shoulder and asked: "Daddy, when are we going home?"
It was then that the sense of being Irish suddenly struck him; his young family knew nothing else but Irishness.
Which, more than anything, prompted the decision to embark on a career that would involve him staying in this country and, more crucially, remaining with Munster, after retirement forced his hand in March of last year.
When he exited the playing arena, typically in the act of try-scoring, smashing his shoulder against Glasgow, he did so as one of the sport's most gilded performers; still the All Blacks' all-time leading try-scorer, he remains fifth in the overall Test rankings with 49.
He left the country behind but never his heritage; one of rugby's most spine-tingling moments came in 2008, when he and three fellow Kiwis formed a haka when the All Blacks visited Thomond Park; it was epic in its grandeur.
On that day, the All Blacks/Adidas behemoth confirmed their global presence. Now Howlett, newly installed as Munster's corporate ambassador, seeks to do the same for the Irish province in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
Howlett is the public face of a brains trust that also includes notable Munster-based heavy-hitters like Niall Fitzgerald (ex Unilever CEO), Leslie Buckley of INM, Patrick Coveney of Greencore, John Herlihy from Google, Ken Murphy from Boots, Tony Keohane from Tesco and David Cronin, who runs the University of Limerick Foundation.
"It involves a good few things from marketing and commercial opportunities, to growing Munster's business network," Howlett says of his new career, swapping boots and tracksuits for a laptop and suits.
"It's broad. But what attracted me to the job is that it still involved me helping Munster. I could still help them without putting my boots on. That was an attraction and I'm enjoying it.
"After spending 16 years on the field, learning about life off it."
He embraced every challenge with relish on the field and surpassed most of his expectations. Now, much is out of his control, whether it is the dwindling crowds for Munster's bread and butter Pro12 games to the increasing inability to match European rivals in the marketplace.
"The environment has changed again since I've been here," he adds, in a month where Connacht outbid them for one of the emerging stars of New Zealand rugby, Bundee Aki.
"There's more on offer for international players looking to play abroad. All I can tell players from my part of the world is how much I've enjoyed it here, and the fact that I'm still here is testament to that.
"Munster will always be able to attract players. There's a lot that Munster can offer. It's Munster's job to try to help get these guys here in terms of getting funding and that's our challenge."
Locating a big hitter – a JP McManus-type figure with bulging pockets and a unique bond with his or her province – is the ultimate goal.
The IRFU can only provide so much financial commitment; the new European economic reality allowing rivals to grow exponentially richer demands much, much more from Munster if they are not to be left lagging behind.
Howlett could quite easily have convinced Aki to join Munster; whether his paymasters could afford to pony up the cheque was quite a different matter.
"Through our commercial board, we've been charged to try to solve that problem," Howlett insists. "We're making some progress but it's challenging.
"There are a lot of good Munster and Irish people globally who are successful in their own right. They're educated and have travelled abroad but they've retained that connection with home and they may want to help.
"We need to find out who these people are. It's about contacting them and letting them know what challenges we face. It's about building that network. Nothing is off the cards. We know what we're facing.
"We have to think broadly. We have to think big if we want Munster to remain where we are. We need to have big plans and big ideas."
Rob Penney had big plans for Munster but his expansion, notwithstanding two successive Heineken Cup semi-finals, ultimately flattered to deceive many red-clad supporters.
Ultimately the top brass too; they have now installed an all-Munster, highly inexperienced coaching staff who, it is widely assumed by their cheerleaders, will resurrect rugby as it used to be played in 1965.
Not so, stresses Howlett.
"For sure, Axel Foley is going to bring his own style to the game but he's smart enough not to throw away all the good things that Rob has brought in. It's going to be a combination of both ways.
"He's a smart guy. He's a student of the game. He knows the game is evolved.
"He has learned a hell of a lot from both Rob and Simon Mannix. So you'd expect him to digest all of that and come up with his own style incorporating all aspects."
The professional and personal cannot always coalesce.
"You have to separate your professional and emotional ties – I'll always be tied to All Blacks and Munster. But look at Ronan O'Gara. He has needed to learn but, although he's in Paris, he'll always be emotionally tied with Munster."
The Howlett family are still absorbing all this. Young Charles is enrolled in the Cork Con minis every Saturday; he has yet to formally acquire his citizenship. So Ireland or the All Blacks could still tug his love down the line?
"I'll leave that to him!" the proud father smiles. "The worrying thing is that he's taken to the game of hurling! But he enjoys all sports. I like to let them play what they want."
For now, what Howlett has to offer to prospective Munster players around the world is a more immediate priority as they seek to retain their eminent global status in the sport.
If he is as successful off the field as he was on it, Munster can expect to reap rich dividends.
Munster and Kiwi legend Doug Howlett is a SEAT Ireland brand ambassador and recently received the keys to his new SEAT Alhambra. To see the full range, log on to www.seat.ie