The 34-year-old New Zealander, his country’s all-time record try scorer and one of rugby’s greatest players, was forced to announce his retirement yesterday, the decision taken by the Munster captain on medical advice following a shoulder injury suffered after touching down in the corner against Glasgow on March 30.
Typically, Howlett left others to do the talking, preferring not to make a statement as the province he served since January 2008 made the announcement yesterday.
And the Munster team-mates he captained in what would be his final season led the tributes to a man who won a Super rugby title with the Blues in 2003, scored 49 tries in 62 Tests for the All Blacks and, since joining Munster in January 2008, won a Heineken Cup in his debut season, Celtic League titles in 2009 and 2011 and scored 35 tries in 114 games over five and a half seasons.
“What an honour and dream come true to have played alongside @DougHowlett #hero #legend,” Simon Zebo wrote on his Twitter feed as the news broke.
“Sad to say goodbye to @DougHowlett Am very lucky to have played alongside and learned from a true legend of the game. Thank you dugs!” Johne Murphy tweeted.
Munster revealed Howlett was in negotiations over a contract extension to his current deal which expires at the end of June when his injury struck. He missed the Heineken Cup quarter-final and semi-final last month and underwent shoulder surgery at the start of May, appearing at the Munster annual awards last Friday in a sling. While he did not pick up an award at the ceremony, Howlett will go down as a Munster great, only the second overseas player to captain the province following Jim Williams and perhaps the best foreign import signed by the club.
Howlett had long signalled his prowess as an excellent finisher having played for the Blues, Highlanders and Hurricanes, making his Test debut in 2000 against Tonga and scoring with his first touch of the ball. He played in the 2003 and 2007 World Cups before deciding to quit the All Blacks and get a taste of European rugby, joining Munster and continuing to win trophies.
Yet Howlett was more than just an excellent finisher with pace to burn — he clocked 10.86 seconds for the 100 metres — he was also a giant in the defensive line, his hits the stuff of YouTube legend, right up to this season’s massive tackle on Saracens’ Springbok hooker Schalk Brits during a Heineken Cup home pool game.
Munster said yesterday that “Howlett has intimated that he will remain on in Cork, where he lives with his wife and three children, for the immediate future,” and it remains to be seen whether he will be offered some sort of coaching role with the province.
He follows double Heineken Cup champion and Irish Grand Slam winner Marcus Horan into retirement, bringing the number of 2008 Heineken Cup-winning starting players to have hung up their boots up to eight.
Howlett’s was not the only departure from Munster announced yesterday with the province stating that former Springbok prop Wian du Preez is returning to his native South Africa after 87 games for the province while Scott Deasy, Christy Condon and Danny Barnes will also be exiting. There was one piece of good news amidst the departures, however, with tighthead prop BJ Botha signing a two-year contract extension, bringing to an end months of speculation about the South African’s future under the IRFU’s new player succession policy, which will limit Leinster, Munster and Ulster to one non-Irish qualified player per position between them.