Pat Howard in his time with Munster played nine times for the province
ON Christmas Eve, 2014 as his Munster team mates scurried around to buy their remaining presents before settling down to spend some quality time with their families, Pat Howard set out on a mammoth road trip.
The South African centre left Cork and travelled North through Munster and Connacht before arriving at his destination some five hours later, Letterkenny, Co Donegal.
Howard recalled: "My dad works as a doctor two months on and two months off in Letterkenny.
"In 2014, I drove five hours from Cork to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with dad in Donegal and then came back down for the game against Leinster at Thomond Park which was on St Stephen's Day.
"My dad goes back home to South Africa to the farm when he is not in Donegal. He gets off then and another doctor takes over.”
Munster scored an impressive 28-13 win over arch rivals Leinster in December 2014 with Howard starting at 13.
Howard, who joined Munster on a short-term loan deal in November 2014, made nine appearances for the province, before returning to Western Province in February 2015.
So how does 25-year-old Howard, who returns to Munster this week when his current club the Dragons, visit Musgrave Park for a crucial Pro14 fixture, view his time in Ireland?
"I loved it (Munster). That was the reason I came over to Europe to play rugby. I came from the Stormers on loan because I wanted to play some more rugby during that South African off season.
"Tyler Bleyendaal was injured at that time, so too was Keith Earls. I came in as a medical joker for centre at the time. It was really good. I played about nine games, a bit of European Heineken Cup as well (scored a try in a rout of Sale Sharks), it was lovely to be involved in that too.
"I scored a try against Sale right at the end in my last game. It was nice to do that. I came on as a replacement that night, we put 50-odd points on them, so it was a good send off.”
While Munster didn’t have a vacancy for Howard, he initially signed for Northampton Saints after leaving the province.
"The problem about staying on at Munster was that they had no spots available other than medical jokers. A medical joker allows you be covered for a certain period and Keith Earls was coming back, so too from Tyler (Bleyendaal).
“There was no scope there for a contract at that stage. I would have loved to have stayed, of course.
"Initially it was only as a loan deal to get some game time as I was only breaking into the Super Rugby with the Stormers and probably not playing as many games as I would have liked.
“The Director of Rugby at Western Province initiated the move. Gert Smal had contacts over here from the time he was forwards coach with Ireland.
"The plan was always to go back to Western Province and see from there. Once I realised I really enjoyed playing in Europe, my agent was working on it and Northampton came to the party wanting to offer me a contract.
"I signed a two-year contract with Northampton. Pretty much at the end of my time with Munster, they offered that to me, saying they had a spot to fill, but they had a couple of difficulties in the backline while I was there where there was no LV Cup (Anglo-Welsh Cup) which I would have played in because of the World Cup at the time, so there were limited opportunities for me starting off.
"They moved a couple of players around, had Harry Mallinder playing inside centre and moved Luther Burrell to 13 making it a bit further for me to get into the team.
“Eventually I asked them if they would let me find somewhere I could actually play a lot of rugby and they were good about it.
”You don't want to go too long as a youngster not playing some rugby, you tend to fade into obscurity if you're not playing.
"They were very good about it, said they could understand that. There was an opening at the Dragons as well. I had a chat with Lyn Jones who was here at the time, he was keen to have me over as a wing, so I was happy to have the opportunity.
"I think I played 23 games last season. That was good for me.”
Howard says he has enjoyed playing rugby in the different environment on offer with the Northern Hemisphere.
"From a weather point of view, it doesn't bother me in the cold. I don't struggle with it. Where I lived in South Africa, it can get cold.
“The biggest challenge is being taken out of your comfort zone, away from what you are familiar with, away from your family. A different culture takes getting used to, with how people are and the way they react to things.
"You used to get used to it. This is my third year away from South Africa now. I am used to it.
"The rugby is different, the styles are different, here it is quite forwards orientated, I know South Africa have big forwards as well, but we tend to run a ball a lot and we have the weather to do that.
”It is a bit different and I have experienced a couple of different coaching styles now. It is nice to get a different perspective as a player, from different coaches from all over the world, it gives you rounded abilities.”
Howard will be catching up with some familiar faces when Bernard Jackman’s Dragons visit Musgrave Park.
"When I was a youngster at Western Province coming through the ranks, Rassie (Erasmus) was the Director of Rugby there. I came across him a few times. He left from there before I could spend any proper time with him, though
"I have spoken to him a couple of times after playing against Munster. He is a really great guy, a great coach with very good ideas."
"Johann van Graan I haven't come across directly, but I have heard he is a good coach. Like Rassie, he is softly spoken.”
Howard also played with Munster’s new South African flanker Chris Cloete who is due to make his debut in Friday’s game.
"I have played with Chris (Cloete) a couple of times. He was at Western Province for a short time and the Sharks as well. Then he moved on to the Kings.
”I played with him at Western Province, he is a very, very good player, very strong over the ball. I think he is a good addition to Munster. It will be tough around breakdown and stuff to move him off the ball.
"I never got to play in Cork during my time at Munster, unfortunately. I have heard it has a great atmosphere. I am looking forward to it.
Hopefully, I will get some good game time on Friday. It would be nice to see some of the guys. I obviously played with JJ (Hanrahan) at Northampton as well. It will good to catch up.”