Howlett backing Simon Zebo to be a star for Ireland
Lessons that defined All Black great can drive new Munster hero
SEVEN years ago, when Dougie Howlett drew level with Christian Cullen at the head of the All Blacks try-scoring roster, attack coach Wayne Smith was asked to sum up the attributes that had allowed the Auckland native to attain such stunning heights.
"Hard work," mused Smith after Howlett's World Cup hat-trick against Italy. It would be followed imminently by the try against Scotland that secured him historic status in his native land; he would depart for Munster at the end of the competition on a mark of 49.
Only the remarkable Julian Savea, just 24 and already on 27 - effectively he scores a try per game - seems set to bother that outstanding high water-mark.
Simon Zebo is also 24 but his international career has remained holed below the waterline; eight caps and three tries and an audacious flick against Wales which is accelerating further into the rear-view mirror the longer he stays outside of the starting XV.
He did feature on the summer tour to Argentina but if he wanted a source of inspiration as he seeks to establish himself as a World Cup player next September, he can look no further than the decorated Howlett.
Even before that 2007 World Cup, conceded dismally in an unforgettable rope-a-dope quarter-final in Cardiff against France, Howlett was not assured of his berth in the 30-man squad; he ended his career as he had begun it, fighting like a demon to become accepted.
Few would compare Zebo, at this stage of his career, with Howlett; but the determination to succeed is mirrored in the twinkling eyes of the Corkman with the dancing feet. He couldn't ask for a better mentor.
"It's a competitive position and when Dave Kearney and Andrew Trimble were given their opportunities last year, they were impeccable," says Howlett, whose first intervention as a one-on-one guide to the Munster 'A' backline helped them to beat Leinster last weekend.
"The positive if that is that it has made Simon a better player. He's working very hard to get his position back in the Irish team.
"I look back in my career and something similar drove me on to become the player that I became. I came into a squad with Tana Umaga, Jeff Wilson and Jonah Lomu as wingers.
"And that only made me a better player. I see the same thing with Simon as a player, he has so much talent and potential. He's working hard to realise all that. And I'm sure that when he gets that chance in an Ireland jersey, he won't be able to let go."
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has slowly been converted by Zebo's belated willingness to segue from selfishness into selflessness.
"Simon knows what to do and we have seen that in his recent games," says Howlett, who now spends his time seeking funds for Munster's Academy while helping Mick O'Driscoll and Greig Oliver with their imminent British & Irish Cup campaign.
"The work rate from Simon is up, the defensive work is up, all that unseen work. We know what he can do with the ball, he's an exceptional talent with the ball," says Howlett.
"It's all the other work that needs to round his talent in the game. I'm sure Joe has identified and communicated that with Simon. The next step is to play well with Munster and he's doing that at the moment so hopefully the call-up will come."
Howlett's "seen" work was mightily impressive to the awe-struck global audience who followed his fortunes in the silver fern jumper; but it was the ugly "unseen" work that ensured he was accepted by his relentlessly driven colleagues and coaches.
"That was the most important part of our game," he agrees. "You don't hate it because these are the things that only the team-mates can see, that's the rewards you get out of it.
"You put your team in a position and they've seen you do that, whether it's given a final scoring pass or making a tackle, as opposed to scoring the try.
That's the great thing about being in a team sport. Other individuals recognise you for doing things that aren't seen on TV. At the same time, as wingers, you're there to finish opportunities and they're the things that are seen the most. And Simon can do that."
Zebo's envy at the strides made by his international colleagues may have been replicated in recent times by a collective jealousy within Munster at the giant strides achieved by Leinster in Europe.
Howlett hopes that last Saturday's convincing win in Dublin, their first since his try helped his side to an 18-0 shut-out at the RDS six years ago, can propel Munster with confidence into their European campaign.
"It's a huge boost and hopefully this can prove to be the launching pad for the European campaign," he asserts.
"Knowing the team, they'll all have one eye on the European campaign and what Sale are doing, what Saracens and Clermont are doing.
"They've shown they can play this type of game and demonstrated that they can do so hopefully it can spur them on.
"There was a lot of hurt in Munster and the motivation for Leinster was because of what we had achieved. Now our younger players are coming through, having seen so much Leinster success and they want that for themselves.
"I've been in Munster long enough to know they should never be written off and you saw a little of that at the weekend, when nobody gave them a chance and they turned out one of the best performances of the season."