The Munster exit door kept revolving yesterday as exciting young fly-half Bill Johnston left for Ulster in search of more game time and Heineken Cup-winning legend Doug Howlett decided to return to his native New Zealand.
Neither departure will derail head coach Johann van Graan’s plans to improve his side’s performance levels and gameplan following two deeply disappointing semi-final exits in the last four weeks. Howlett’s decision to quit as Munster’s Head of Commercial and Marketing may impact the Cork hurlers more severely in that regard given his addition over the winter to John Meyler’s coaching ticket as High Performance Lead.
Nor are Munster short on fly-halves with senior squad members Joey Carbery, JJ Hanrahan and Tyler Bleyendaal committed for the long haul and Ireland U20 and academy star Ben Healy an up and comer although as yet uncapped by his province.
Yet in the wake of the rejection of new contract offers by both forwards coach Jerry Flannery and attack and backline coach Felix Jones, as well as the expected loss of highly-regarded strength and conditioning coach PJ Wilson to a lead role at Bath Rugby, yesterday’s announcements can easily be perceived as another sign of crisis unravelling at Munster Rugby.
Acting chief executive Philip Quinn yesterday insisted Howlett’s decision to end an 11-year association with the province, the All Blacks’ record try scorer having joined Munster from the Blues in January 2008, had been long-planned.
He also paid tribute to Howlett’s contribution to realising Munster’s off-field objectives in his six years since retiring as a player and joining the head-office staff, first as a corporate ambassador and latterly as the senior executive in the commercial department.
Quinn credited Howlett with delivering Munster’s “most successful commercial year of the past decade”, which saw attendances rise by 15 per cent, season ticket sales up 10 per cent, sponsorship income increase by 10 per cent and hospitality income leap 30 per cent.
“With Doug excelling in a senior management role we were always informed of his future plans to return to New Zealand,” Quinn said in the statement confirming Howlett’s exit.
“In pursuing our strategic objectives, the building blocks are very much in place for further progression and that’s down to the work the commercial and marketing department have carried out on the ticketing, sponsorship, patrons and global events front. We retain a talented and committed commercial and marketing team focused on realising our clear vision and strategy built on the values of Munster Rugby.”
Howlett said: “The privilege of playing for Munster Rugby, completing my MBA in UCC, and having the opportunity to run the province’s commercial and marketing programmes under the guidance of Garrett Fitzgerald, and the commercial board’s Niall FitzGerald and Patrick Coveney, have all been incredible experiences.
If Howlett was a reminder of glory days past, helping to win the 2008 Heineken Cup and two Celtic League titles, then the departure of Johnston represents a bright future in red that might have been.
A highly thought-of and exceptional talent nurtured in the Munster academy, Johnston was marked for great things from his days on the 2015 Rockwell College Munster Senior Schools Cup-winning side through to a significant though injury-hit Ireland Under-20 career as part of the squad that reached the 2016 U20 World Championship final.
With 12 senior appearances for Munster, starting with a March 2017 debut at Zebre, the 22-year-old believes he needs more gametime in a number 10 jersey to realise that potential.
Ulster head coach Dan McFarland said. “He obviously feels now is the right time for a new challenge in his career and he will bring enthusiasm and unquestionable talent to our squad. ”
Johnston had been handed his senior debut by Rassie Erasmus but got his first Guinness PRO14 start from current boss Johann van Graan in November 2018, an away win in Bloemfontein at the Cheetahs.
“As a Munster man it was a huge honour to represent my province and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time here,” Johnston said.
“I’m an ambitious player and this is a great opportunity for me to test myself in an exciting new environment and develop my game under Dan and the other coaches.
“Ulster has a talented young squad that is hungry for success and it’s an organisation that’s clearly moving in the right direction. That’s something I really want to be part of and I can’t wait to make the move to Belfast and get stuck into pre-season training.”
With Billy Burns the first-choice Ulster fly-half, Johnston appears to have been signed to put pressure on the Irish-qualified Englishman but will have also to leapfrog Johnny McPhillips, currently second in the pecking order, while the highly-rated Michael Lowry, primarily used thus far in Ulster’s back three, also has ambitions to play in the number 10 jersey.
The search for Howlett’s replacement is not on head coach van Graan’s desk but he has a busy close-season ahead as he bids to find the right replacements for the coaching vacancies created by the losses of Flannery and Jones.
Following their season-ending PRO14 semi-final loss at Leinster on Saturday the South African admitted it would be difficult to gather momentum in pre-season while having to bed in potentially three new coaches as he bids to restore the Munster coaching ticket to five rather than the four in situ since the sudden death of head coach Anthony Foley when Rassie Erasmus was director of rugby in October 2016.
Yet van Graan, who succeeded Erasmus in November 2017, stressed the importance of continuity in his playing staff and has also made a point of stating he has retained the services of every player he wanted to hold onto for 2019-20.