RWC Special: Howlett's quickstep to heaven

The All Blacks wing is ready to leave the world in his wake
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It was the stuff of which legends are born. A talented teenager plucked from his classroom and thrust into a senior representative side. But it is not always as simple as that.

Douglas Charles Howlett was taken from Auckland Grammar School's 1st XV on 26 June 1996 by the Auckland director of rugby Graham Henry, formerly the august college's coach and more recently in charge of Wales and the British Lions, and fielded on the Auckland wing against a Northland Invitation XV in an early-season warm-up in Whangarei.

The silence was deafening. Auckland lost 30-28, Northland did not bother to register the game as first-class and Howlett went tryless. Later that year, Howlett played for a Tongan Barbarians side against the touring New Zealand Maori. The extent of Howlett's Tongan ancestry is not deep, he had a quiet game and the scouts did not hammer on his door. Nor were they queueing up in 1997. Howlett was bypassed by the Auckland Blues for the Super 12, and spent the winter with Otago Highlanders in Dunedin, playing twice, once as replacement.

In 1998, Howlett tried his luck with the Wellington Hurricanes and managed five games at a time when Tana Umaga was first choice in his preferred position on the wing. Back to his native Auckland (after Henry had gone to Wales) and he was used only twice by Maurice Trapp, the stand-in coach.

By this time Howlett had grown into a well-built sprinter, bulking up to 14st and growing to 6ft. He had won national school titles in the 100 metres hurdles and 100m in which he holds the national Under-20 record of 10.76 seconds. The scorching pace that has turned Howlett into New Zealand's main strike weapon could well have seen him targeting next year's Olympics instead of the World Cup.

But, as is so often the case in New Zealand, track and field's loss was rugby's gain. Training logistics and the desire to play a team sport ended a dream of wearing the Silver Fern at an Olympics. "I pictured myself running down the 100m track and doing everything that they do. Standing there, receiving my medal," Howlett said. "But rugby gradually took over and I wasn't able to put the time into athletics. It's the nature of rugby that you'll come up against people who are slower than you. That's always a situation you can exploit."

New Zealand Colts beckoned, as did Auckland and the Blues. Howlett had 10 games for each side, scoring one try for the Blues and 10 for Auckland. The youngster had arrived - he was fast and strong with an acute rugby brain. He fitted into some teams perfectly on the wing and into others as a lively, unorthodox full-back.

Howlett, though, does not feel entirely comfortable at No 15. "At full-back you're set at the back and you have to cover a lot of kicks - if you're out of position it can be exploited quite easily. On the wing you can drift and come in at rucks - there is more freedom."

The new millennium saw Howlett break into the national side and his trademark dark, curly hair immediately became synonymous with Kiwi rugby as he scored twice in a 102-0 victory over Tonga. Umaga had moved to centre, enabling Howlett to play on the right while Jonah Lomu used the left.

Howlett is no Lomu, no thundering charges from him. Rather he seems to have taken on the best Rolls-Royce traits of three lustrous All Black wings of recent times. There is Grant Batty's irrepressible energy, Stuart Wilson's silken glide through the gap, and Jeff Wilson's skill with the ball, either in hand or off the foot.

Howlett has seven tries in seven Tests this year and 24 from 31 in total, sixth in the All Blacks' list behind Christian Cullen (46 from 58), Wilson (44 from 60), Lomu (37 from 63), John Kirwan (35 from 63) and Umaga (27 from 52). If Howlett maintains his strike-rate he could eclipse the top three as, having just celebrated his 25th birthday, he has the years (and the brains) to keep the tries rolling in.

Howlett has pulled off many startling touchdowns, some apparently impromptu and others, like his scorching of Jason Robinson at Twickenham last November, the product of athletic genius.

But while he is a lively, free spirit he has no wish to be tagged as unorthodox. "I really want to get involved a lot more, try and get the ball in hand more often. That means I will be looking for more work, but only when the opportunity arises within the structure of our game-plan. You are allowed a little bit of licence, but only if you have done your primary job first."

Howlett has a warning for World Cup opponents - they might not yet have seen the All Blacks in their most dangerous form. "We are building and evolving all the time. This Tri-Nations was another chance for us to try things out that did not work that well first time around. We have a lot of try-scoring plays and we have been working hard at such things in training."

In other words, the rest of the world have been served notice that the current crop of All Blacks are still some way from hitting the peak of their powers. The prospect of their fruition is mouth-watering.

It is more than seven years since Howlett, their star wing, left school, but it is a safe bet that he will be giving lessons to rival wings for at least another seven.

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