Doug Howlett looks to cast net wide

Doug Howlett remains hopeful that Munster will be able to source a replacement for Paul O’Connell from abroad.

News broke last month of the Ireland captain’s decision to join Toulon after the World Cup, leaving his home province with a massive hole to fill in their second row as well as their leadership group.

Head coach Anthony Foley signalled their intention to open a dialogue with the IRFU about the possibility of going to the market even before that, despite the fact that they already have two non-Irish qualified (NIQs) and another pair of special project players on the books. That is not including CJ Stander who becomes eligible for Ireland after the World Cup.

IRFU rules state that there should be no more than one NIQ player per position between Munster, Leinster and Ulster, but that has diluted into more of a guideline in recent years, thus allowing the provinces more room for manoeuvre.

Leinster, for example, employed Australian Kane Douglas in their second row last season while Ulster used the South African Franco van der Merwe.

With Douglas seeking a return home on compassionate grounds, there would appear to be ample wiggle room.

“We have one place, I think,” said Howlett who works on the commercial side for Munster.

“They are looking at options. As you say, it is a complicated process. It is not just as simple as identifying a player and bringing him in. We have to go through the process of the IRFU. At this stage, we have to look through the squad and it is a challenge…

“However, exceptional circumstances could come into play and — I am speaking for myself here — it would be something, especially during the World Cup, that would be helpful to Munster.”

Munster, as with Leinster who are seeking a new head coach after Matt O’Connor’s departure, aren’t helped by the fact that they dipped into the market long after much of the wheeling and dealing was done, or by the upcoming World Cup.

Howlett never sought an inside seam into O’Connell’s thought process before the decision to make for France was announced, but as someone who made a similar shift abroad at the end of his career he understood where the motivation stemmed from.

“I wasn’t surprised after playing with the guy and the service he has given. You know, this is somebody that has always given everything for his club, but at the same time has always wondered ‘what else?’ What else is there? “And that is the kind of guy he is,” said Howlett at the AIG Insurance Summer Splash event this week.

“He is always looking for challenges. It is nothing begrudging Munster or Ireland, it is a new opportunity and I guess my experience would have come into his thinking.

“I came here for two years having thought that I had seen everything in rugby. But some of the best experiences I have seen were in the red jersey for Munster and a two-year contract has turned into nine years in Ireland.”

Howlett joined Munster on the back of a disappointing end to his All Blacks career as he was left out of the side that fell to France in the 2007 World Cup quarter-final despite breaking Christian Cullen’s New Zealand try record earlier in the tournament.

An exit at the same last eight stage or earlier would represent a disastrous end to O’Connell’s international career, though Howlett believes Ireland can match burgeoning expectations and trek far into the tournament if they can keep men like their skipper fit and somewhat fresh.

“People are aware of what they have to offer now. They have proven that in the Six Nations.

“My concern will be whether their front line 15 can make it through the tournament. Key players in certain positions: Johnny Sexton, Conor (Murray), Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien, Paul (O’Connell). These are the sorts of guys who need to be playing in the big games, so that will have a big effect on how far they go. They have slowly built their way to where they are now. They are an exciting team and on their day they could take most teams.”

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