Howlett retirement yet another blow for Munster

Munster and former All Blacks player to hang up boots at the end of this season

Doug Howlett and Munster coach Rob Penney. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Doug Howlett and Munster coach Rob Penney. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

Munster will have a leadership void and a couple of overseas’ playing spots to fill next season after the province yesterday confirmed Doug Howlett’s retirement from rugby. With the province also facing the likelihood of Ronan O’Gara retiring in addition to Howlett, the All Blacks’ all-time record try-scorer, big name replacements are unlikely, given these austere times at Munster.

Indeed, evidence of this is the anticipated departure of scrum coach Paul McCarthy, which may suggest a more influential role for BJ Botha, whose two-year extension with Munster was also confirmed yesterday. In addition to Peter Stringer (who will remain with Bath), and the retired Marcus Horan, Seán Scanlon (joining Rotherham Titans) and the Connacht-bound Seán Henry, Wian du Preez is returning to his native South Africa, while Scott Deasy and Christy Condon are also being released.

Nor has Danny Barnes been re-contracted, with Munster yesterday stating that the winger cum centre is “understood to have negotiated an opportunity to play abroad and news of that will be confirmed in the coming weeks.” It is expected that Barnes will join Newcastle, who stand within a two-legged promotion play-off against Bedford of a return to the Premiership.

Howlett is the current Munster squad captain, emulating Jim Williams as the only overseas’ players to have held the position with Munster, but his decision to retire has been forced upon him, according to a Munster statement “through injury sustained in the RaboDirect Pro12 game against Glasgow Warriors at the end of March.

“At that time, 34-year-old Howlett was in contract extension negotiations with Munster but hasn’t been able to play since because of the shoulder injury he suffered in the course of scoring Munster’s third try. He underwent surgery in a Dublin hospital earlier this month and acting on medical advice will retire at season end.”

After scoring a record 49 tries in 62 Tests for the All Blacks, which also makes him the fifth highest try scorer in the history of test rugby, he joined Munster in January 2008, playing a key role in their second Heineken Cup triumph that season and going on to play 114 times in his five and a half seasons with the province. He ends his Munster career as their second all-time highest try scorer with 35 tries.

Speaking to him recently, Howlett had been keen on continuing his playing career for one more year before envisaging a move into coaching and business. “I think a combination of the two, at what level coaching I don’t know but certainly after so long in the game that’s what I know and I’m confident talking about it and I think I’ve got a lot to offer. So at some level there will be an involvement.”

Intelligent, knowledgeable, an excellent communicator and a natural leader in the Munster environment, as well as a high quality player and finisher, Howlett would have much to offer the province off the pitch but there seems little likelihood of that coming to pass any time soon.

Assistant/backs coach Simon Mannix is under a two-year contract alongside Rob Penney and far from being in a position to expand their coaching ticket, it is the increasingly stringent financial times at Munster that explains the departure of McCarthy, who had helped the Munster scrum improve collectively and develop individuals such as David Kilcoyne, James Cronin, Stephen Archer and Christy Conlon.

Last week Munster also confirmed their long-awaited decision to move to a single training base at the University of Limerick from 2015-16 onwards. However, this is more to ensure a smoother logistical operation than a cost-cutting exercise.
Ulster centre, Luke Marshall, has signed a new three-year deal with Ulster that will see him remain at Ravenhill until at least the summer of 2016.

Marshall, who is 22, was recently named the RaboDirect Pro12 young player of the year. His excellent form for Ulster saw him make the break-through into the Ireland side. His season was cut-short after he suffered three concussions in three games and he will miss Ireland’s tour of North America.