Doug Howlett: Lesser teams must relish chance to play game’s giants
Former All Black Doug Howlett says players are playing for their positions in each game
Munster’s Doug Howlett is tackled by Scott Waldrom of New Zealand in their 2008 match: “I don’t think I felt more alive in a match.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Every wannabe David, with understandable trepidation, is already lining himself up against a rugby Goliath. New Zealand against Namibia. Australia against Uruguay. South Africa and Japan in Brighton. That will be no day at the beach for the Brave Blossoms.
Rugby’s showpiece has had regular scoreboards more in line with cricket since the tournament mismatches began in 1987. While 51-year-old Davis Love III can win a PGA Tour event and Flavia Pennetta can become US Open tennis champion for the first time at 33 years old, in rugby the odds don’t ever seem to stack up with the outliers.
When Doug Howlett last played in a World Cup in 2007, New Zealand revelled in Pool C with Italy, Romania and Portugal. Each of the Europeans fell to Goliath. Points cascaded in with 76, 85 and 108 respectively scored against them.
In the Italian match Howlett dotted down three times from the right wing that brought him equal with Christian Cullen’s record 46-try mark. Even under a blue sky in the south of France, the gulf between the top tier and those below made for queasy viewing.
But Howlett sees it more as opportunity and an aspirational challenge than a chance for the old boys to preen. It is, he says, just reward for making it through a qualification process and less a game of Whac-A-Mole.
“I have no issue with the World Cup structure as it is in terms of offering opportunity to all athletes from all shapes of life,” he says. “The so-called lesser teams, they go through a qualifying process. They deserve the right to be there and to test themselves against the best in the world.
“For Italy. For Portugal. In those two games, the build-up, the anticipation, the preparation . . . as an athlete that’s what you want. That’s what the World Cup provides.”
Commiseration comes at the end. Not only is the team instinct to win but players are going through auditions for the next match. In that environment it is heresy to make adjustments or take pity.
“No. It doesn’t work. Everything goes out the window if you do that. Secondly if you are going in half-hearted you are susceptible to injuries,” he says. “You’re playing the game as you see it. Sure there might be moments where you might be able to take your foot off the accelerator. But it brings in danger, injury, a lack of timing and cohesiveness.
“You are playing for your position regardless of the opposition. You are playing to a game plan. You are trying to impose your game plan and the score almost becomes irrelevant.”
There’s an irony about Howlett’s gilded career. After he joined Munster, the province played against the touring All Blacks in 2008. That game sticks in his memory as he remembers experiencing the threat of humiliation.
As an All Black that fear never existed. But for some days before his old comrades arrived to sack Thomond Park, Howlett felt anxiety. He believes the match, which Munster led 16-13 after 76 minutes before losing, is a guiding light for the downtrodden.
“We were just written off,” he says. “Nobody was giving us a chance. I don’t think I felt more alive in a match. I guess there was the fear of getting humiliated, of getting trashed. And we all know that result. We were within a whisker of a win. Given an opportunity you don’t know. You just don’t know until you are in that environment and given that opportunity.”
The Springboks play Japan in Brighton on September 19th. We can make up our minds then.