There’s not too many guys in world rugby you’ll meet that will come across nicer or more genuine than former All Blacks and Munster legend Doug Howlett.
The Aucklander sat in an office space in Dublin on Tuesday and spoke to a handful of reporters openly and candidly about everything from his young family, how his former friend and teammate Jerry Collins had the entire All Blacks squad marching to the beat of his own drum, and how he’s now embracing his new role as a player ambassador at Munster.
However, Howlett’s off-field demeanour largely contradicts what we know of him on the field as a player. Off the field you’ll find Howlett is an approachable, friendly, mild-mannered guy, whereas on the field, he was one of the most ruthless, devastating and fearless finishers in all of rugby.
Howlett’s 49 tries in 62 tests as an All Blacks winger marks him joint first with former Hurricanes fullback Christian Cullen as the highest try scorers in New Zealand Rugby history.
Howlett’s 79% strike rate ranks among the very best in world rugby as the lightning quick wing was at times the chief benefactor of a terrifyingly strong New Zealand backline.
Howlett played under three different coaches during his time as an All Black, with the former Blues speedster playing under Wayne Smith, John Mitchell and Sir Graham Henry during his seven year stint with the All Blacks, and although it’s been nearly 10 years since he’s donned the famous black jersey, he can still see the success of today’s team rooted in some of Henry’s early teams.
Attack the weakness, that’s always been the mentality.
“It was a mindset,” Howlett replied when asked of New Zealand’s ability to attack from anywhere.
“What we’re looking for is weaknesses in the opposition: somebody out of position, somebody fatigued, somebody injured. All these things. We try to organise something to attack the weakness. To answer your point, if we didn’t attack and somebody was out of position, we’d be pulled up on the Monday in the debrief.
‘Why did you kick it? There’s somebody here out of position.’ Or why didn’t I, as a winger, tell Dan [Carter] that the space is there?
“Everyone has to be thinking at the same time and seeing the same thing. It’s not as simple as attacking from our 22. We need the circumstance to be able to do it.”
This picture that Howlett talks about is the collaborative effort of the creative brainstrust of Sir Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith.
Howlett said that one of Henry’s greatest decisions as a New Zealand coach was adding Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen to his coaching ticket. The trio have been at the heart of the All Blacks staggering success over the last 12 years and Howlett states that it’s no coincidence that so much of New Zealand’s success over the last decade can be attributed to just three coaches.
Coaches impose themselves in different ways but I guess with Graham Henry, one of his smartest moves was bringing the two boys in – Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen.
It was never Graham Henry was the Head Coach, it was the three of them. We’d often see them having these robust conversations, they’d be at each other all for the better.
They were three coaches all working on the one gameplan and I guess that that continuity has helped, because what they’ve been working on for the last 12 years has added real value now.
I was pleased after the 2007 World Cup that Graham Henry was allowed another four years because I think that that is paying dividends now.
Hansen was an assistant under Henry for seven years before taking over from ‘Ted’ following New Zealand’s Rugby World Cup win in 2011.
Since Hansen’s arrival as Head Coach, the All Blacks have lost just three times in the last four years and have added another Rugby World Cup as well as four Rugby Championships to their extensive trophy cabinet.
Under Hansen, New Zealand have been able to repeatedly replace the loss of key players, they have been able to consistently unearth and develop new talent, and they’ve also been able to see the same picture, where multiple players are recognising the one opportunity before executing what they see in front of them.
They have been exceptional in the way they have executed game-plans.
They take pressure from other teams, every team has put pressure on them. Their ability to absorb that and turn it around has been exceptional.
They do the basics well, there is no magic formula, and when tries are on offer. they execute and take them regardless of where they are on the field.
It is not just the opposition 22 but their own 22. They have a go. They are a well-oiled machine. It is not just one or two players, it is four or five players seeing the one picture and acting on that.
It’s a real talent to get so many players to see the same thing in a fast-moving environment.”
The All Blacks ability to identify space and mismatches has resulted in Hansen’s side scoring a lot of tries during his tenure as coach, and more often than not, it’s been Hurricanes winger Julian Savea who has been doing most of the scoring.
Savea has scored 43 tries in 48 games for the All Blacks and possesses the second best try scoring rate in international rugby history behind Japan’s Daisuke Ohata.
The Wellington native is only seven tries away from breaking Howlett’s all-time record, and Howlett believes it’s only a matter of time before Savea passes his mark and New Zealand has a new record try scorer.
Listen it’s only a matter of time I say.
He’s an exceptional athlete, he’s been given every chance to get back in form and as I said earlier, the All Blacks, as the machine they are, he’s bound to get over a few more times but at the same time it’s a competitive environment.
You’ve got Waisake Naholo coming back, you’ve got [Nehe] Milner-Skudder to come back, Ben Smith has been doing an outstanding job, Israel Dagg, so it’s a competitive environment.
What I’ll say is that he’s made the most of the window that he’s had and whether he remains there over the next week or so will be interesting.
Carrying Tradition And Instilling A Strong Culture
While Howlett said he was suitably impressed by what New Zealand has been able to achieve on the field over the last decade, he also added that a big part of the All Blacks success over recent years has been their ability to instill and uphold a strong culture.
New Zealand’s famous ‘no dickheads’ policy has garnered a lot of praise among the international sporting community for it’s no-nonsense stance towards athlete misbehavior, but for Howlett, it’s the culture that the coaches have been able to instill and the environment that they’ve created that has acted as the bedrock for success.
Again, I know culture is a huge part of it, but understanding the history of what it means to be an All Black, all these things count for something, it’s not just on the pitch.
Not only in the coaching but in the culture of the environment, nursing young players into the environment, there’s just some consistency there.
In an age of increasing corporate influence and media scrutiny, Howlett also added that he is glad that this All Blacks group have upheld the pride and tradition of the Haka and that they haven’t let outside influences or detractors diminish how they honour those that have become before them.
I knew the haka since I was five-years-old.
I think that no one needed to teach me when I came in. There was some refining but it’s a sense of pride for any young player coming through.
My own kids, they perform the haka so it’s great to see it’s still alive and the question I always have is the meaning behind it and I think this current group of All Blacks understand that.
I think maybe the general public don’t, and that casts a shadow over what we’re doing, but it’s honouring what’s been before us and honouring the opposition and I think it’s a fantastic part of rugby.
I think the commercialisation of it was a concern for us as All Blacks way back then.
When we had ‘Ka Mate’, there was adverts promoting the Haka and that was never the intention, and that’s why we came up with Kapa o Pango, which was something new to the group, brought by us and this was the meaning to it.
You’re always going to get that commercialisation of it but I guess as a group of players it’s internal and about honouring those that have come before.
There were many great All Blacks before Doug Howlett, and there have been many great New Zealand players since the Aucklander’s retirement, and if the All Blacks can uphold their culture, traditions and standards, there will be many great New Zealand players to come in the future.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena
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