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Howlett: 'In the northern hemisphere there's so much emphasis on the opposition'

The All Blacks record try-scorer was part of a legacy of a team that trusts its own skill-set.

Paul O'Connell celebrates with Doug Howlett Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

DOUG HOWLETT INADVERTENTLY found himself in focus for some of the most resounding images in the wake of Ireland’s historic win over New Zealand in Chicago.

Next time his native country go into action though, the chances of the All Black legend being spotted on the wrong side of the fence are very slim.Ireland, his adopted home and a team full of men he knows well, are one thing. The Lions are quite another.

It’s important to keep in mind Howlett’s Test feats before he became a European champion with Munster. He remains the record try-scorer for the usual world number ones (four ahead of Julian Savea on 45), playing 62 times in a team that made itself the benchmark for modern attacking rugby.

Doug Howlett Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Of course, Howlett doesn’t wear that legendary status as he humbly potters around a room in AIG’s Dublin offices, ready to promote the company’s  Ultimate All Black Experience competition. But from his vantage point on the right wing at the top level of club rugby in both hemispheres, he is well-placed to compare and contrast. And during the course of a chat about the ultimate inter-hemispherical challenge – a working title for the next Lions tour we’re hoping to get off the ground for 2021 – one of the game’s all-time greats offers this piece of wisdom:

It’s a mindset that I’m conscious of, having come to the northern hemisphere: there’s so much emphasis put on the opposition team.

“The All Blacks on that 2005 tour, sure we knew ‘these are the Lions and these are the players.’ But (the overriding message was) ‘this is what we’re  going to do and this is how we’re going to play the game and this is how we’re going to execute.’

“It would probably be 20% about the Lions and 80% about the All Blacks, how we’re going to make them keep up with us.”

Followers of our Facing History series last year will have noticed the theme continuing 12 years on. The doctrine behind Kiwi rugby is skills-based and the mantra ‘get your options from the opposition’ tends to come into play in the heat of a match rather than the controlled environs of an analysis room.

Rugby Union - IRB Rugby World Cup 2007 - Pool C - New Zealand v Romania - Le Stade Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Of course, Lions coach Warren Gatland has form in displaying the utmost trust in his own methods. But the presence of ‘Warrenball’ on tour this summer is more of a fear than hope for people who will be supporting the tourists’ cause. Despite Gatland pointing to Ireland’s five-try win over the world champions in Chicago as a possible gameplan reference, certain selection calls in his squad last week signal a reliance on engines over ingenuity.

“You’re always going to have good players who miss out. Simon (Zebo) and Keith (Earls) obviously fit into that category. I would say that aerial skills will come under the microscope.”

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Whoever takes the field for the three-Test series, they will have to overcome the daunting sights and sounds of New Zealand rugby. The faces of World Cup-winners, those slick black jerseys, forboding stadia covered in black cloth and then the Haka and a ferocious rugby team on home soil.

New Zealand All Blacks preform the Haka Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It was intimidating in 2005 for the Lions and it will be again. The word, though, turns All Blacks a touch defensive lest they be drawn to comment on a certain shoulder injury suffered by the ’05 captain. That charge of intimidation, though not actually placed at the feet of the rugby team, diverted Howlett onto the subject of focusing on opponents ahead of your own team.

“No intimidation… I don’t think that had anything to do with us, that might have been something within the Lions team,” Howlett says, stirring memories of Clive Woodward’s bloated squad and the counter-productive presence of Alistair Campbell.

This time around, Howlett’s boots are long hung up and his playing mentality has changed to a man who is familiar with both camps. This time, he’s a little worried for the All Blacks, or at least concerned that they may not complete another clean sweep across the three Tests again.

“Maybe I’m caught up with what’s going on around here, but I’m a little nervous,” says the Aucklander with a smile.

dh 2005 touring Lion, Shane Horgan and former All-Black Doug Howlett launched AIG’s Ultimate All Blacks Experience competition; an all-expenses paid trip for two to New Zealand to watch the All Blacks take on the Lions. For more information keep an eye on the AIG Ireland social media channels or log on to

“I think the All Blacks will win the series, but I think the Lions will nab one of the Tests, maybe the first. They’ll have had more time together than the All Blacks, and as we all know that All Black team takes a game or two.

“Those Lions players are already steeling themselves , and I keep coming back to the penalty-takers. We saw another display from Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton at the weekend.”

If it comes down to goal-kicking, it will already be a massive improvement from the Lions of Howlett’s era.

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Sean Farrell

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