All black and bright and red all over

 

When he swapped the famous black jersey of New Zealand for the famous red one of Munster, DOUG HOWLETTcouldn’t have predicted how quickly Cork and Ireland would become a second home to him and his family, Now, he tells Gráinne Faller, even his young son says ‘Tank you’

WHEN DOUG HOWLETT signed for Munster at the beginning of 2008, New Zealand mourned and Corkonians swooned. The top test try scorer for the All Blacks was coming north, and better still, he was coming to Cork.

He had just married his long-term partner Monique Everard that December – their son Charles was born the previous July. Now in January, they were coming to Ireland. A new marriage, a new baby – it was a huge move.

“Oh yeah, it was massive,” says Howlett. “You leave your friends, your family, your support network. But we were a new family setting off on a journey together. We just thought while we’re here, we’ll make the most of it.”

The change was a refreshing one for Howlett all the same. Professionally, 2007 had been a turbulent year. The All Blacks were knocked out of the rugby World Cup by France at the quarter-final stage. Inexplicably left on the bench for that match, Howlett could only watch as it happened. Then things got worse when he was arrested for causing damage to two cars a couple of nights later. The press were shocked. This was so out of character for the famously clean-cut, upstanding man who had become a national hero in the course of a stellar rugby career. Reporters door-stepped his family at home. They even rang his grandmother looking for a quote. Howlett immediately put his hands up, accepted responsibility and said sorry. His mortification was palpable.

All was forgiven eventually and luckily for Munster he avoided a professional ban. The press attention was as intense as ever a couple of months later at his wedding, but it was more of the Hello! variety as New Zealand congratulated the couple and bade them farewell.

It must have been a change coming here after having such celebrity status back home? He grimaces slightly.

“When you become an All Black, nothing changes, you know? It’s everybody else that changes,” he says. “I just kept doing what I’d been doing since I was a kid, but because they’re such a followed team, everyone knows how you performed at the weekend and it’s documented in the news. You lose a little bit of privacy, but that’s sort of the way with any sport, really.”

Howlett is friendly and professional with an easy smile. Today he is dressed in a rather fetching muscle-hugging Adidas get-up that gives him a half-rugby player/half-superhero air. “This isn’t how I normally dress,” he jokes cheerfully. “I’ll be changing for the flight home.”

He’s anxious to be back in Cork in time to put his “little man” to bed. He seems guarded when talking about his personal life – always friendly and saying a lot but giving only a little away. When it comes to his son Charles, however, he just can’t help himself.

“The Cork accent is a bit of a concern for us at the moment,” Howlett beams. “He’s starting to pick up words now. The first one was ‘tank you’, t-a-n-k you, you know? My wife and I just looked at each other. We couldn’t believe it.”

Soon enough there may be two Cork accents in the house, as his wife is due to give birth again in June. “We’ll have a kid born in Ireland, which is pretty special for us, having enjoyed our time so much being here,” he says. “But to, fingers crossed, cap it all off with a child here will certainly override anything else as a highlight here.”

The Howlett family have really taken to their second home. “It has really flown by. We’re starting to get on with the neighbours and meet people in the neighbourhood. Having a small child, you’re able to make friends very easily.”

Howlett is ridiculously modest. “When you look at it from this side of the world, you sort of look at an All Black and go wow, but in New Zealand we’re just one of a bunch of rugby players,” he says.

This is unconvincing. Rugby is like religion in New Zealand and Howlett has scored more test tries for the All Blacks than anybody else. He shrugs. “I just look at all of this as something to look back on,” he says. “At the moment I’m still in my career and I want to keep adding to it and achieving and striving. As soon as I start patting myself on the back and saying I’ve done this or that, things will start to slow down.”

This attitude has been Howlett’s key to becoming a real part of the Munster team. “That’s the way Munster is really. No matter who you are or what you’ve done beforehand, it’s about what you bring to the team and how you interact. You could be the best rugby player in the world but if you don’t get on with your team-mates it’s not going to work,” he says.

It took a few games to get properly going but it was a year packed with highlights. Winning the Heineken Cup in his first year with the team was a sweet victory. He cites that and the Munster versus the All Blacks game last November as the two professional highs of his time here.

The Munster haka Howlett performed with fellow New Zealanders Rua Tipoki, Lifeimi Mafi and Jeremy Manning was electrifying. The roar of the Thomond crowd as the four in red jerseys laid down the challenge to the All Blacks and the subsequent ghostly silence in the stadium as the All Blacks responded.

“It still gives me goosebumps,” says Howlett. “We did our research and floated it to the team and to the old timers in Munster. The haka would be for us to represent Munster – because that’s what we were doing, we were representing Munster. To be one of the lucky few who could do that was possibly one of the highlights, or the highlight, of my rugby career.”

Howlett grew up in Auckland, New Zealand. His dad is a New Zealander and his mum is originally from Tonga. He was always immensely sporty, playing rugby in the winter and doing track and field in the summer. It was as a student in Auckland Grammar School that the rugby really began to take over. He managed to break into the under-16 national side and things went from there. “You pull on a black jersey with a silver fern on it and you think, gee, I could carry on – and that’s as a 16-year-old,” he says. “There’s an under-19s team and an under-21 team and I sort of came through the grades.”

After playing for Auckland and New Zealand for so long, was it a wrench to leave it all behind for the red jersey? “Well it was certainly unusual,” he says. “Growing up in Auckland, playing for Auckland and playing for the All Blacks, you don’t put on many other jerseys there. I had obviously seen a lot of the Munster jersey because I had watched the matches and the 1978 game is a big annal in the history books – it comes up a lot. It was a proud time when I put it on. It was just the next phase of my career.

“It would be fair to say I was starting to go stale back home after so long in Super rugby and rugby in general really. It was a fresh challenge to come up here and test myself against new opposition and new grounds, the new climate, and I’m happy with it.”

He settled in quickly, although the pranks and slagging that the team is famous for took a bit of getting used to. “Well I’m good with it now,” Howlett says. “My skin is certainly a lot thicker than when I arrived. Once you realise it’s all in good humour you’re away. Declan Kidney said it to me early on that if they’re not slagging you, you’re in trouble.”

He laughs along and doesn’t try to compete too much. “I’m pretty average at that really,” he says. “You could say I’m working on my pranking game. I definitely have to work on it. But it doesn’t stop me laughing at others all the same.”

He has been bowled over by the Munster supporters. “Gee, I don’t think I’ve ever had support like it,” he says. “Everybody has a link to the team. You know, ‘I’m Alan Quinlan’s cousin’s friend,’ or ‘I’m Jerry Flannery’s neighbour.’ They’re quite educated about their rugby. They know all the rules, who’s playing where, they sometimes know the team before I do.”

The supporters in turn have taken him to their hearts and Dougie Howlett wigs can be seen dotted throughout the crowd at Munster matches. “Initially I thought people were just wearing them to keep warm and out of the rain,” Howlett says. “There’s quite a few of them around.”

While his commitment to the rugby is beyond reproach, being in Munster has really given him, Monique and Charles time to become a family. “As an All Black, there’s a huge commitment to playing rugby,” he explains. “The easy part, in a way, is getting on the field and playing, but there’s a huge obligation to sponsors and supporters that all takes time as well. There’s a bit of that here but nothing like the degree. The All Blacks are a massive brand and things can be quite demanding on those few players.”

He came partially in the hope that things would change. Howlett says: “Up here it’s been a little different. I’m home for dinner most nights with my son and my wife. We’re not travelling as much and it’s allowed us to grow as a family, which is what we had hoped.”

They have explored a good deal of Europe. “Rome was a wonderful place, having studied a bit of it at school, getting to see the architecture first-hand – that’s a great part of being in Europe. You realise how isolated New Zealand is when you’re up here and a trip to Spain or France or the UK is just a plane ride away.”

And they have seen quite a bit of Ireland. “Some of those country drives we take you could close your eyes and open them and be in New Zealand really,” he says. “We’re just coming into it now, finding places to go to. Recently we went to Clare, to the Burren. That was a lovely place. We had a couple of days of lovely weather which helped. We’ve done the ring of Kerry, west Cork – there’s some lovely coastline down that way which for us is great. We’re very happy by the coast so most of our ventures are to the coast. We’re just hopeful for a good summer so that we can really enjoy it.”

At the moment there’s no telling whether he will continue to play for Munster after he finishes his contract in the middle of next year, or whether, as some speculate, he’ll return home and try and break into the international side for the 2011 World Cup. If any decisions have been made about going home, he is not letting on.

“Well there’s only one home really, but that is up in the air at the moment, to be honest,” he says. “The decision is not solely mine of course – I have my wife and my little man to think about. This is as close to home as you can get really, it’s our second home.”

Life after rugby is inevitably on his mind. Not yet 31, he has a couple of years left in the legs, but these things require planning. He has already set up the Doug Howlett Outreach Foundation, which aims to help underprivileged children who show promise in rugby or netball to achieve their potential.

“Obviously I have a couple of things in the pipeline,” he says. “I think I’d like to direct my energies into business. It would be hard for any rugby player to go from striving hard to achieve something to nothing, so I suppose I feel I could crossover quite easily into that next phase of my life – whenever that might happen.”

For the moment, life outside rugby revolves around Monique and their son. “If it’s a good day we’ll get to a beach and have a run around and get him in the water, if it’s not we’ll entertain him inside.”

He’s not yet two, but I wonder has dad been testing young Charles’s hand-eye co-ordination at all? “Well and truly,” laughs Howlett. Indeed there may be a little hope for Cork GAA in the future. “He has a certain attraction to his hurley right now, which is a little concerning. I’ve had to get the rugby ball out. He keeps us entertained."

HOWLETT ON TRAINING

“Running is a massive part of what I do obviously. You’re running for 80 minutes in a game and you’re trying to replicate that as much as you can when training during the week. The effort you put in off the pitch will stand to you during games.”

“It’s crucial to have the right training equipment and good shoes are a priority for anyone who does a lot of running. You want good support through your Achilles and for your calves, and the Adidas Supernova really does that for me. The Techfit is also really important, especially for me with my speed work, and some of those tries you score in the corner are give or take a millimetre.”