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Munster cult hero 'Dutchy' Holland pushing the Hurricanes to new heights

The 44-year-old helped the Wellington-based side to the 2016 Super Rugby title.

This post is part of The42′s Facing History series, supported by Cadbury Boost. To read more, click here.

THERE ARE VERY few Munster supporters who don’t remember Jason Holland fondly.

The New Zealander wasn’t the biggest or most explosive centre in the world, but he was as intelligent as they come.

‘Dutchy’ played for Munster 102 times, suffering the heartbreak of the 2000 and 2002 Heineken Cup final defeats – “they still haunt me to this day,” he says – as well as enjoying many classic moments like the Miracle Match in 2003.

The 44-year-old had retired and returned home to New Zealand by the time the southern province reached their holy grail in 2006, but was back as part of the backroom team under Declan Kidney in time for the 2008 success.

Jason Holland and Dominic Crotty Holland makes a break for Munster with Dominic Crotty in support. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

He was backs coach under Tony McGahan thereafter, but returned to New Zealand again in 2012 to take up an assistant role with Canterbury, working with Scott Robertson.

His rise within the Kiwi coaching scene has been impressive and this year he was an assistant coach to Chris Boyd as the Hurricanes won their first-ever Super Rugby title.

We caught up as the New Zealand Secondary Schools team gathered for their training camp before Tests against Australia and Fiji earlier this month, with Holland head coaching a side that brings together the finest schoolboy prospects in the country.

“I loved my time with Munster,” says Holland, who misses the Irish people, the Munster crowd, the local communities, and Midleton, which became his hometown and his club during those years in Ireland.

“That’s what made us go so hard. We respected the fans, they respected us. Having just won Super Rugby with the Canes, it’s great. But she’s not the same winning as a coach as it was as a player.”

Coaching and playing are two extremely different arts, something that Holland stresses throughout our interview. Whatever about having intelligence, knowledge and technical skill as a player – actually coaching is a completely different skill.

Holland stresses that McGahan – or ‘Dumper’ as he is known – was a big influence in that “he taught me a lot around being organised, what it took to be a professional coach, your planning.”

While Holland picked up some rugby-specific skills that still form some of his coaching philosophy in Munster, the New Zealand approach is different.

“There’s lots of things we did at Munster that I would still use here, just around our contact zones or the mentality of how to play the game,” says Holland. “One thing that sticks out to me is the character and why you want to do things – that comes from my days in Munster.

“I’ve changed my mindset and since I’ve been back in New Zealand I’ve learned a different way of thinking. It’s just a small bit of a different mindset in how we want to play the game with more width than what we ever really did in Munster.

Jason Holland Holland was coaching at Munster up until 2012. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I felt we were a little bit nervous about backing ourselves, that comes back a little bit. You don’t know when you’re in a set-up where you are a little bit careful in what you do. I’ve learned to really back the boys over here, back their skills and back the ability to play a good style of footy.”

That width Holland mentions is prevalent in all forms of New Zealand rugby. Watch next month how the All Blacks consistently fill the pitch laterally, therefore dragging the defensive line with it.

The Hurricanes, like the rest of the Kiwi franchises, are also superb at maintaining width in their game.

“The one thing that we really understand since I’ve been back is that by playing with width, you open up things in the middle of the field,” says Holland.

“If you’re prepared to go to the edge, even if it’s not on, defences may spread out a little bit and then you can smash through the middle of teams. That’s something we didn’t quite nail in my time in Ireland, in that we’d like to be direct the whole time so defences narrowed up and it was actually a lot harder to be direct.

“It’s just an understanding that you’ve got to back yourself to be able to attack all over the field at all times.”

Speaking to Holland and so many others in New Zealand, the simplicity of their approach to rugby is striking. What they do is not easy – far from it – but it is basic and extremely clear for the players to understand.

Holland worked with a talented group at Canterbury, helping them to three ITM Cup titles, but he found the skill set moved up another level when he got his hands on this Hurricanes’ attack in late 2015.

“The boys in Canterbury had a great all-round skill and they could do things consistently well. The boys at the Canes are the same but there’s some magic stuff that comes out of it. You just sit back and go ‘Holy…’

“Nehe [Milner-Skudder] will flip one out the back door or TJ [Perenara] is throwing things through his legs, then you turn around and Reggie Goodes has pulled something special out in the front row, so it’s pretty impressive and pretty good fun to coach.”

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Holland has had to change his own thinking in order to allow that skill level to flourish.

“It’s been a bit of learning for me. I was always a coach that was really worried about when balls went down and errors. It would freak me out a little bit, but what I’ve learned since I’ve come to the Canes is that you’ve got to expect that a little bit.

“You’ve got to be prepared to make a good decision about it; don’t throw an 20/80 ball. But you can’t be on one side of it saying, ‘You can’t make that error’ and then be sitting back and clapping when the boys are nailing those to score tries.

“That’s something I have now that I wouldn’t have had in Ireland. I would have been freaked out around errors in Ireland, whereas now I can see that I want the boys to push the boundaries.”

With the likes of Beauden Barrett, the Savea brothers, Perenara, Brad Shields, Vaea Fifita, Dane Coles and Loni Uhila in the Hurricanes squad, there is an embarrassment of attacking riches.

Their skills are already at an extremely advanced level but the desire to improve continues, and Holland points out that working hard on decision-making allows those players’ skills to be used to greatest effect.

“The first thing is to make them confident to be able to do that,” says Holland. “We made good decisions in the second half of the year.

“If [the opposition] showed edge space, we ran. If the wingers came up and they showed kick space, we kicked. The skills will happen but if you can get the boys making good decisions based on what they see – it’s the crux of the game.

“There’s obvious things you need to be nailing – your set-piece and physicality – but I believe that if you can nail your decision-making and you know there’s got to be space somewhere and we go to that space, then your skills will work.”

We all know about the Kiwis’ ability to execute the basic skills under pressure, their sensational catch-and-pass in moments of stress, but Holland believes that is as much about decision-making as the quality of the skill itself.

“There’s a lot of clarity in the All Blacks, so that under pressure they see the picture and know how to beat it,” says Holland.

Beauden Barrett Beauden Barrett was sensational for the Canes this year. Source: Photosport/Grant Down/INPHO

“That will actually take pressure off their skills if it’s a clear picture. ‘I see that, I know what to do,’ rather than having your mind ticking over and thinking, ‘I’m not sure’. That effects your skills.

“The ABs’ game plan is simple, way simpler than I’ve ever coached. There’s not a massive amount of big picture detail, but all the detail is in the small things around what they see. That’s where we got to in the second half of the Canes year.

“It’s keeping clear. Understanding those pictures makes your skill execution way easier.”

So how can coaches help players to understand those ‘pictures’? What is the process of growing their ability to pick out the defensive shape and set-up, then ruthlessly exploit it.

Holland admits it took him half of the current season to find the ideal formula for the Hurricanes’ players in that regard, having started with players reviewing video in detail, freezing images and discussing what they did or could have done.

That has its value, of course, but for Holland the real gains were made on the pitch – where the decision must be made in the heat of a match.

“A lot of it is getting guys to understand exactly what they’re looking for.

“We would do that on the field, stopping the session sometimes, giving different pictures from the defence in training, so the players recognise the cues they’re seeing and what the option is to beat that picture. That’s as simple as it is.

“You can use footage, but a lot of the time we just got out and ran situations that we’re likely to see. Plum [John Plumtree, his fellow assistant coach] running the defence, throwing different pictures at us and us constantly attacking, making those decisions.”

The Hurricanes’ attacking kicking game this year was world-leading and is also reflected in the All Blacks’ set-up, particularly with out-half Barrett having taken on such a prominent role in the national team.

Ronan O'Gara and Jason Holland in the changing room with the Heineken Cup Trophy Holland was part of the backroom team at Munster in 2008. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Holland explains that attacking kicking – cross-field kicks, chips, grubbers – is not a different part of training, instead simply falling under the same umbrella as the decision-making.

Passing, kicking – it’s all part of the same desire to find and exploit space on the pitch.

“Within every team you’re going to have structures where you have rucks in different parts of the field that can be quite consistent, so from that midfield ruck we might look at it as our attack off the midfield ruck, not necessarily our attacking kicking game.

“Attack off a midfield ruck incorporates our passing and our kicking. It all becomes one. If there’s space and we didn’t take it, we’ll ask the question about why we didn’t take the kicking space.

“With short kicks, we had some good success with wingers being up trying to bring linespeed and we did little kicks over the top.

“Beaudy did that really well, but what he got was massive chat from hookers and sevens on the edge who understood the decision-making process. If I look back on one thing that helped us roll into the back end of the year, it was our decision-making in attack.

“Hookers, sevens, wings – all knowing what to look for and how to communicate that to the guys who pull the strings.”

Holland is about to launch into that same process with the New Zealand Secondary Schools team when we meet. They went on to earn a 45-19 victory over Fiji and a 32-22 success against Australia, but for Holland those results were not the primary focus.

“This weekend everything we’re doing is around development, not the Test matches we’re playing. That’s the mindset in this schoolboy camp – it’s not all about the result. Even though we want to win, the whole focus is development.”

New Zealand Rugby bases everything within its development and professional structures around the six pillars of the game – technical, tactical, nutrition, leadership, mental skills and physical.

Dutchy 'Dutchy' is loving his work with the Hurricanes. Source: The42

“There’s talent everywhere and it’s all over this country, but there is a lot of talent in Auckland and Wellington especially, ” says Holland. “A lot of that is the Pacific Island boys.

“The talent is frightening, but it’s just about getting the boys to understand what you need to do to become a professional rugby player.”

As for Holland himself, he understands that his development as a coach is ongoing, and points out that he is still learning how to get his knowledge of the game across in a manner that players can easily digest and respond to.

“I’m keen to drive on and get better. I’ve still got a lot of things I need to be better at. She’s a funny old game – we just won the championship and everything’s rosy at the moment, but you know how quickly these things can change.

“I’m happy as at the Hurricanes, keen to work with the group we’ve got at the moment and grow myself so I can be better. Hopefully, that will give the boys a better chance to perform when I’m coaching them.

“I’ve got girls who finish school in five or six years, and I reckon I wouldn’t mind coming back to that side of the world at some stage. I’ve got a lot of learning to do in the next four or five years.”

A return to Munster perhaps?

“Who knows, mate. I’ve got heaps of good friends over there and I’ve got to get back for a holiday! I’d love to get back at some stage, once the girls are finished school, and have another crack at it.”

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