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'The unbelievable was happening before my eyes': Doug Howlett's World Cup memories

New Zealand’s record try-scorer doesn’t have a World Cup medal to his name, but he takes pride from just making it there.

DOUG HOWLETT IS one of the most revered players in the history of the game.

He played over 280 professional fixtures, 62 of them for arguably the most impressive New Zealand team ever assembled and his 49 tries stands as an All Black record.

New Zealand v Italy Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

He won five Tri-Nations medals, captained Munster after helping them win a European Cup. He played at two World Cups – and that’s the problem.

For such a brilliant career, it’s difficult to pull much of Howlett’s World Cup highlight reel from the memory bank. Indeed, when The42 asks about his own personal World Cup highlight, he opts not to present his hat-trick against Italy or any of his numerous braces.

Instead, he insists it was simply good to be involved. He’s sincere in that too, his eyes light up as he says:

“There’s no one moment. When I look back at it my best memories are being part of an All Black group going to a World Cup: the preparation leading in to it, the anticipation, the nervous energy, the crowds, the environment.

“It all just brings a smile to my face, because it’s all happening again for a new group of players. Sure I might not be on the field, but it’s on our doorstep, and it will bring back great memories.”

unnamed (3) Source: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

To hear Howlett up close, it feels like the obsession with pressure we have on these shores is not felt as sharply elsewhere. Though the streets of Auckland will again have 50-foot high billboards of Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Sonny Bill Williams, the All Black spirit tends to swell with pride rather than be crushed by pressure.

“You have to,” the legendary wing says emphatically.

“You just look at the squad and you’ve got five or six of the best players in the world. That’s got to breed confidence. And the fact that you’ve worked so hard to get there and this is a big moment. You can take the opportunity or it can pass you by.

The pressure on the group comes more from within than externally. It’s what you do in the tournament, not what you’ve done before it.”

Over the next seven weeks 31 players (and maybe an extra few coming off standby duty) will get to experience that elation that belonged to Howlett in 2003 and 2007: being one of New Zealand’s elite, the best of the best, Top Guns. But the 36-year-old hopes they don’t see the other side of the coin.

Rugby Union - IRB Rugby World Cup 2007 - Pool C - New Zealand v Romania - Le Stade Howlett chatting to captain McCaw (taking a rare turn as a replacement) against after the 2007 win over Romania. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

In ’03 New Zealand fell to hosts Australia in the semi-final. That was hard enough to take, but sitting fully fit in the stands while your team exited in the quarters? That must surely go down as one of the worst weeks in Howlett’s career on and off the field.

“I was part of a group of exceptional outside backs – Joe Rokocoko, Sitiveni Sivivatu and myself – there wasn’t much between us,” says the trio’s odd one when it came to Graham Henry’s matchday 22.

‘The unbelievable was happening before my eyes’

“Looking back at it, all I could have done and all I did was put my best foot forward and the coaches made the decision from there. That’s as plain as it was. If we went any further, who knew, I would have loved to have another opportunity.

“Huge disappointment firstly not being involved in such a crucial game. But then the unbelievable was happening before my eyes. We were prepared, we were in good form, but sport’s a great thing and a cruel thing. We were falling down with injuries: Dan Carter, Nick Evans – we were scraping the bottom of the barrel then. Take nothing away from France, they were great on the day and they were better than us.

I’ve put that at ease. World Cup is a super, super environment and I’ve nothing but great memories of being part of two of them. The disappointments just make you revere the World Cup even more.

“I guess it’s something to learn from and I’m glad New Zealand did going in to the last World Cup. Form going in to these tournaments doesn’t count for a whole lot. It’s what you do in tournaments.”

Even so, 21st century rugby would have been a much poorer place without the incredible Howlett.

Doug Howlett tested his skills in the AIG Insurance Summer Splash event today. AIG Insurance announced up to 15% discounts on their car, home and travel insurance products, to members of sporting clubs across their sponsorship partners. Click here for more information.

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Sean Farrell

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