Most remember Doug Howlett as the curly-haired Blues winger who could zip down the side of the paddock and knock off a one-two number with his brother-in-arms Carlos Spencer.
He left New Zealand in 2008 while still at the top of his game and devoted five years to the Irish club Munster, before a shoulder injury closed the door on his career.
Yet this rugby legend has continued to make his career from the sport, moving from the paddock to the boardroom and, in his own words, is “helping the club achieve its goals and dreams of silverware without putting my boots on.”
Today we’re talking to one of the Blues’ most influential players to see what life looks like post-professional sport.
Growing up in Mt Roskill, Doug was a natural athlete: cricket, athletics, rugby, league all came easily. It wasn’t until his high school days at Auckland Grammar that he started to really pursue rugby, influenced in part by his father, brother and uncle.
“We were always out on the field kicking the ball around,” said Doug from his home in Cork, Ireland. “We’d talk strategy and key tactics and watch matches together.”
He went on to become Head Boy of Grammar, while excelling with the First XV. The foundations were set for Doug to be noticed by the Auckland development coaches. They brought him in to the training squads with the senior players and soon earned his first national honours, selected for the NZ Under 16 team in 1993.
As the young Doug progressed through the ranks of NZ Rugby, he was drafted in to the Super Rugby competition and by 1998 Doug had made it to the Blues.
“I’d grown up supporting the Blues – the Brooke brothers, Joeli Vidiri, Eroni Clarke – there were some great players on the team.
Doug continued the Blues’ long line of exceptional talent. In 2003, the year the Blues brought home the trophy, Doug also broke the club record for most tries scored in a season, earning 12 in one year. Fans would long remember Doug’s distinctive, dark curly hair dashing across the line after working the ball down the field with Carlos.
“We had an unspoken understanding. When you’re playing with a guy who had the talent and boldness of Carlos, anything could happen at anytime.”
During his Super Rugby success, Doug also earned All Black honours, making his debut on 16 June 2000 against Tonga. He made 62 test appearances over the next seven years and earned 49 tries, taking the title from Christian Cullen for New Zealand’s Record Try Holder.
Come 2008, 12 years after starting first-class rugby in NZ, Doug, his wife Monique, and their son Charles decided to take up an offer from Munster Rugby in Ireland.
“You never quite know what to expect when you travel across the world to a new environment and a new team,” said Doug. “There were nerves. But my wife and I left New Zealand determined to enjoy our time away.”
Of course Doug’s reputation as one of the All Blacks’ top try scorers preceded him, creating some pressure upon arrival at the new club. Yet cool as ever, Doug was able to “execute a few good games early on” and helped the team win the coveted Heineken Cup for the 2007-08 season.
He earned 114 caps for the club and would have continued playing well into his mid-30s, but an awkward tackle in 2013 – while scoring a try, no less – resulted in shoulder surgery and ultimately brought his career to a close.
Neither the club nor the Howlett family was quite ready to part ways. The Munster Commercial Board invited Doug to be the Corporate Ambassador. Doug grows the business network behind Munster Rugby, connecting with the Irish diaspora around the globe and creating Sponsorship and Marketing opportunities.
“The rugby landscape is changing, particularly with the riches on offer in France. My job is to help Munster Rugby remain at the forefront of European rugby. We are building on Munster’s unique environment, firstly by identifying, growing and retaining talent but also attracting a sprinkling of top quality international talent”
The family was all on board with the decision to stay – Doug and Monique’s family had extended to five kids (8, 6, 4, 2 and baby). The older ones are enrolled in Irish schools and the kids are playing Irish games, as well as rugby.
Staying in Ireland doesn’t mean Doug has lost touch with his roots; in fact he closely follows the Blues’ results.
“I know the hard work the lads are putting in,” he said. “I’d never say a bad thing about the team – they’re trying their hearts out and they’re not far away.”