Dougie Howlett: A made man in Munster

On the basis of what they showed at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick last Sunday, you’d be thinking Cork will still be hurling come August. Soon after, Munster will be lining up the first of their pre-season friendlies in Cork.

Hopefully, Cork hurling keeps Dougie Howlett busy for a while and someone in Musgrave Park is planning an appropriate thank you and send-off for Munster’s greatest signing before his return home to New Zealand.

There are moments from last week I forgot, but I have great clarity of Dougie’s first day with Munster 12 years ago in the UCC Farm. We were around in a circle as he was introduced to the squad. He was afforded a generous welcome.

This fella was the All Black record holder for tries. Still is. Many among us were feeling fairly brittle after a disastrous 2007 World Cup in France, but Dougie had made the front page after a few beers and a bit of car-hopping at Heathrow Airport. “Watch your cars, lads”, someone said. Dougie was in. No mercy. A made man.

He had that bit of Tongan blood in him alright, a ferocious competitor, even if that streak mellowed over the years as the Irishness in him grew. Jess and I were honoured to be godparents to his first born, Charles. The relationship went well beyond having him outside me on the field of play.

It is only now that so many of his progressive ideas for the game resonate properly with me. That we were nearly all Munster inbreds, I am not sure we fully grasped some of the concepts, the good habits Dougie introduced to the dressing room. Now that we all have that distance that a decade brings, you can see more clearly how intelligent and how ahead of the game he was.

People saw this lethal try-scoring winger, but there was fathoms more to him than that as a player. As a 14, I’d invariably have him on my inside, and his communication skills were matched by his capacity to see the game ahead of everyone else. To see space, to see who was on and call it.

There were times I was playing with Tipoki, Mafi, and Howlett and fellas were saying ‘O’Gara is having a blinder’. Rubbish. It wasn’t me at all. I had a telepathic relationship with Tipoki on the outside, but for a lot of the decisive kick-space calls, it was Dougie inside who was calling it.

He came to Munster at 29, and there was buckets left in him. We could see that straight away. We got him at a moment when he had a point to prove after being left out of the World Cup quarter-final defeat to France by Graham Henry. That is the deep, competitive streak.

When that happened, it was going to be good news for Munster. You don’t get to achieve what he did without having a complete game. Dougie was brave and elusive, had a light step for a big man but he was a substantial bulwark defensively. If you were going to the trenches, you’d call Dougie. Believe me.

What I loved, because I place such a massive store in loyalty, was that even if you were 100% wrong, Dougie had your back. Maybe he scolded you after, set you straight, but when the shit was hitting the fan you didn’t have to look far for Howlett. Even in a dressing room of strong characters at Munster, he wouldn’t back down from anyone.

I think his first game, certainly in Europe, was down in Clermont. Friday brought the captain’s run, which most of the lads took in their runners. Fellas sitting in the dugout, chatting, chilling. I saw Dougie pacing up and down a few yards in from the touchline. Then he went to the other side of the pitch and did the same. We’d come to understand it as visualisation. Walking through potential scenarios, getting his angles correct. Getting his head ready.

His breadth of rugby knowledge was far greater than an ordinary winger. That’s why I always smile when I see him tagged as ‘try-scoring winger’. He was that of course, but so much more. He spent weeks, months, and years in conversation with Wayne Smith and anyone who has been under the tutelage of Smith gets the game. From his first season in Munster, Dougie was trying to develop our game, to add more strings to our bow. We took much of what he proposed on board, but in hindsight, probably not as much as we needed to. That particular debate hasn’t gone away.

Is he the greatest signing Munster ever made? Well, who trumps him? Langford and Williams are good shouts, Jason Holland too, but Howlett was huge. And he carried that aura lightly.

I remember the night he got injured against Glasgow in Scotstoun in 2013. Banjaxed his shoulder scoring a try. Finished by a bloody plastic pitch. But even in street clothes, he understood Munster values better, and I don’t think his subsequent transition into the commercial and marketing side of the organisation changed that.

That he had been made captain in his final season underlined Dougie’s understanding of what Munster means and how Munster works. That made it so much easier for him to sell the vision on the High Street. Again, Dougie just got it. He gave us huge credibility. Business people gravitated towards him, they want to engage with Dougie. He presents very well.

From ambassador to commercial and marketing manager he proved a critical addition to Garret Fitzgerald’s front office team. Maintaining the Munster-ness. Talking to lads who still have a link with the club, they are all extremely aware of what a significant hole he leaves behind in terms of pure presence and progressive thinking.

He has been that rare connection between the pitch, the board, and the commercial arm of the club. I hope they make a big deal of the farewell. He is more than rugby. Munster are losing a proper friend.

We haven’t chatted in a bit. I wonder about his thoughts on Munster as he prepares to close this chapter of his, and his family’s, life. Dougie must glance up at Leinster — in another final tomorrow — their production line, the economic muscle greasing the wheels for a richly-funded schools coaching programme.

It’s huge business in Dublin. In Munster, endorsements are hard-won. In Leinster, they roll in the door. The benefits of the capital.

Maybe he wouldn’t swap for any of that, because he would always demand a bit of red in the Munster wash. He isn’t from Munster, but he is of Munster. He has that passion. I’ve written here already that it helps Munster if part of the coaching ticket is from the province.

But it has to be a rugby fit, not a geography fit. I see Scott Robertson here, he’s Christchurch born and bred, and very passionate about his job. But Dougie is living proof that the best fit is the right fit.

It’s a delicate situation, finding that right balance, for the Munster organisation at the moment. With Garrett retiring, you just hope the fortress is as strong as it once was, and that the decision-making process takes account of that crucial Munster intangible. That the thinking is Munster-orientated and not driven by Lansdowne Road.

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