MUNSTER SUPPORTERS GENERALLY don’t extract positives from a defeat to Leinster.
The 16-13 loss at the Aviva Stadium on 2 April last year was a rare exception, but it wasn’t the value of a bonus point to their bid to secure a Champions Cup place that acted as consolation for fans of the southern province.
Since his retirement in 2013, there was a Ronan O’Gara-shaped hole alongside Conor Murray in Munster’s half-back line. Yet that Lansdowne Road loss left supporters wondering if a replacement had emerged.
Starting for Munster for just the third time, 24-year-old Johnny Holland contributed all 13 of their points, including a second-half try. Despite losing to their rivals in front of a 43,000-plus crowd, the game was the highlight of Holland’s career.
“Absolutely it was,” he says. “Scoring a try and playing against some of the best players in the league, a massive crowd and my family were there as well. Great memories.”
As Holland retained the number 10 shirt and provided a fresh impetus at out-half, Munster sealed their place in the top tier of European rugby for the following season by closing out their campaign with wins over Edinburgh and Scarlets.
No Munster supporter lauded him as ROG reincarnated, but with Tyler Bleyendaal still a few months away from delivering on his own promise, Holland’s emergence was certainly a reason for optimism ahead of the 2016-17 season.
He should have been buoyed by his progress, but the Corkman wasn’t enjoying his long-awaited run in the team as much as he should have. For those on the outside looking in, he was a young player in the early stages of a potentially successful career at the highest level of professional rugby.
The reality was that the finish line was becoming more visible on the horizon.
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The parish of Togher on the southside of Cork city boasts an impressive sporting pedigree, but a rugby heartland it is not. Togher is Jimmy Barry-Murphy instead of Donal Lenihan, Denis Irwin instead of Ronan O’Gara. But that didn’t deter Johnny Holland.
“When I was growing up all the kids would be out on the green with footballs and hurleys and I was the one fella who’d bring a rugby ball out,” he says. “That was a massive novelty. People didn’t know what to do with it, they’d just be hoofing it around the place.”
Holland was raised a stone’s throw from the famed St Finbarr’s GAA club. He was educated at Coláíste Chríost Rí, where the cups his schoolmates aspired to were Harty, not Heineken. He wore Barrs blue and also excelled at soccer with Greenwood. But, thanks to his father’s involvement with the rugby club in the neighbouring parish of Douglas, the oval ball came first.
He went on to play for Sunday’s Well, UCC — while studying for a Commerce degree — and Cork Constitution. Holland didn’t have the benefit of being a graduate of one of Cork’s secondary school rugby academies, Pres (PBC) and Christians (CBC), which perhaps played a part in what he describes as “a long route” to provincial recognition. Holland represented Munster from U18 level but never managed to earn international honours.
“I had two years in the sub academy and two years in the academy. Nowadays if lads have to do more than six months in the sub academy they start questioning their life,” says Holland, who was named All Ireland League Division 1A Young Player of the Year after the 2012-13 season with Con.
“I got a development contract [for 2014-15] and this season [2016-17] was going to be my first on a full contract. Ken O’Connell [Munster coaching development officer] used to call me a slow burner and I suppose he was right.”
A first taste of senior action with Munster came late in 2013, when he was introduced as a late replacement in games against Cardiff Blues and Connacht. But that was by no means Holland’s big break. Nine months passed before he featured again.
“I remember Simon Mannix [former Munster backs coach] laughing because I played in two games but I don’t think I touched the ball in play. I got to kick to touch against Connacht and I might have made a couple of tackles against Cardiff, but that was it. I had two caps but I only played for about seven minutes really.”
In just his second competitive home game as head coach, Anthony ‘Axel’ Foley opted to start with Holland at out-half for Munster’s home win over Zebre in the Pro12.
“Axel always had a soft spot for me,” Holland explains. “He brought me in for an ‘A’ game when I hadn’t even played for the [Under] 20s. For some reason I think he always felt that I had something.”
Holland got another run-out against Cardiff in November 2014, but his progress was halted before the month was out.
“Pain,” he responds, when asked what he remembers about the incident which wrenched the hamstring from the bone in his right leg during a British & Irish Cup game against Nottingham at Temple Hill.
“I stretched to make a tackle, a prop came thundering towards me and that was the end of it. It was just unreal pain after that. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
He adds: “Colm Coakley [Munster physio at the time] said to me afterwards, ‘You could be in trouble here’, but I didn’t really take notice of him. I was sent up to Santry to see a specialist. I thought I was going up to find out whether it was a grade-two or a grade-three tear; maybe a couple of months out.
“But that turned out to be a bit too optimistic because the surgeon told me it was fully ruptured and I was back there two days later for surgery. It was in a pretty bad way. But did I have any idea that it might end my career? Absolutely not.
“I suppose the surgeon isn’t going to tell you that anyway. I was 23 at the time so I probably wouldn’t have listened to him even if he had told me it might be the end of my career. Not that I was ignoring the people who were helping me but I would have challenged anybody to make sure I came back as well as I could.
“I didn’t fully understand the extent of it, to be honest. I remember the surgeon saying to me, ‘You’re not going to get the power back in that’, and I was like ‘Who’s this guy? I know he’s my surgeon but what right does he have to say that to me?’ I was determined to prove him wrong as much as anything else.”
Holland didn’t play a game of rugby at any level for 13 months. In spite of the extent of the setback, he remained optimistic for the duration of the rehabilitation process, aided by a book that was given to him by his girlfriend Chloe as a Christmas present.
Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, which has also been endorsed by the likes of UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor, is based on the law of attraction and the idea that positive thinking yields positive outcomes.
“I don’t go to mass but I got kind of spiritual in a weird way,” Holland admits. “I wrote down everything about the rehab, including every goal I had for the next session. Axel often used to talk about how he liked the fact that I played the game with a smile on my face. I suppose that kind of positivity helped me.”
When Holland finally got back on the pitch, he was able to get by but the injury still lingered. He made his return in atrocious weather conditions on 28 December, 2015 in a game for a Munster Development XV against Ireland’s U20s. Holland blamed the mucky Musgrave Park sod for the soreness he felt afterwards. The pain remained as he got more games under his belt, for Cork Con and Munster ‘A’, but again he put it down to the soft surfaces.
“When I got a few opportunities I just blanked it out,” he says. “It was very sore after games and it was sore for the week after. I was in and out of the physio all the time and getting attention at the side of the pitch. But I was probably in denial really. I kept telling myself that I’d be grand if I got enough games into me.”
Holland persevered and Foley rewarded him. He played three Pro12 games in March 2016, including a start against Zebre. A week later came his star turn against Leinster and all of a sudden he was being spoken of as a player with a bright future.
He made 11 appearances in total for Munster, seven of which came in the final nine weeks of last season. The assumption was that Holland was finally living the dream during that period, but the reality was much more complicated. Playing with a smile on his face was no longer as easy as it had once been.
“I didn’t enjoy it at all,” Holland insists. “I probably put myself under a lot of pressure before games as well. My kicking had to be perfect all week. I loved the challenges and the feeling after a game, but if I didn’t do something right I was really annoyed with myself.
“I’d be watching TV with my girlfriend but my mind would be somewhere else altogether. My family would be talking about the game all week and I just wanted them to shut up. I was thinking about it all the time anyway, I didn’t need anyone to remind me that I was playing a big game.
“Fellas would be telling me I had a great game, which was brilliant, but I never fully agreed. The little things would drive me crazy. The pressure for the next game always out-weighed the enjoyment of a win or a good performance.”
Yet Holland is slow to blame the injury for the fact that he was unable to enjoy the best spell of his career. In a way, he wouldn’t have been there without it.
“The injury became a part of me,” he says. “I bottled up a lot of motivation during all the time I spent alone in the gym. Fellas would come into ‘The Rehab Club’ — as I used to call it — after me and they’d leave before me.
“I’m not the only guy ever to go through that but I was just thinking, ‘What’s going on here? What am I doing?’ I bottled all that up and maybe it drove me on because I still hadn’t proved to myself that I could play at that level. And in the end I did.”
Towards the end of the last season, Holland began to contemplate the possibility that he was carrying an injury he’d never get the better of. He was on the verge of withdrawing from the penultimate game of the campaign against Edinburgh and couldn’t train before the visit of Scarlets to Thomond Park.
Nevertheless, Holland came through and made it to the summer. At that point he hoped that some time off followed by a good pre-season would solve the ongoing issue with his hamstring. He went on holiday to Los Angeles and enjoyed his break, even if it did briefly look like it might be interrupted by a call from Joe Schmidt.
“I really needed four or five weeks off before pre-season. All my eggs were in one basket. My plan was to start the season well, maybe get a decent contract and life would be good.”
After Johnny Sexton was forced to withdraw from the three-Test series in South Africa, the Ireland head coach summoned Ian Madigan as his replacement. However, Schmidt claimed to have had “a really good conversation” with Holland, who was certainly on his radar.
Holland: “I was lying in bed in LA and someone sent me a text saying Johnny Sexton was out of the South Africa tour. I just got this feeling of nervousness in my stomach — not that I wouldn’t have loved it, but I just knew I wouldn’t have been right. I needed a rest. I wouldn’t have been able to turn down the opportunity if it came though.
“Joe said in the media that he had been in touch with me but I think that might have been just to give me a boost more than anything, because I actually didn’t speak to him at all. It was really nice to be mentioned though.”
When Holland returned for pre-season training under new Munster boss Rassie Erasmus, it quickly became clear that his summer hiatus had done little to remedy his problem. From a possibility to a probability, the medical staff who worked so hard to assist Holland advised him that there was only one viable option.
“It just didn’t go well at all when I got back,” Holland explains. “There were a lot of harsh truths for me to accept. I was speaking a lot to Keith [Thornhill, Munster physio], who was brilliant throughout the whole thing, and he admitted that they had been worried about it getting to this stage all along.”
He adds: “I had to say it out loud before we could even contemplate retirement, but once it became a reality I couldn’t. I couldn’t say it. I knew I had to begin the process of accepting it but it probably took me another week before I could say it.
“Rassie was unbelievable about it as well. I only knew the guy about six weeks but he’s such a good person to talk to. He has such good people skills that he made it a lot easier for me. He actually had to retire through injury as well so he had been there before himself.”
As Munster prepared to begin their Pro12 campaign against Scarlets, rumours that Holland was being forced to retire began to emerge after he didn’t feature in the pre-season friendlies against Zebre and Worcester Warriors.
“It was completely surreal,” he says. “For there even to be any sort of rumours about me was weird. The only other rumour I had ever heard about me was that I was joining Pau, even though I had barely played a game for Munster, which was hilarious. But the second rumour wasn’t as funny unfortunately.”
On the first day of September, two days after his 25th birthday, Munster issued the statement which confirmed that Holland’s career was over.
“I was just after coming out of the dentist’s when the news came out. I was walking over home and it was very strange. It’s only a five-minute walk but it felt like an hour.”
Five months on, Holland can reflect now on how it all played out without too much difficulty. When he recalls having to break the news to his family, the words don’t come so easily. According to Holland, they were “obsessive” about attending his games and showing their support. He valued that more than they’ll ever realise. His rugby meant as much to them as it did to him.
“Telling them was tough. Really tough. Letting people down is the hardest part. That part still gets me now. It’s the hardest thing I think I’ve ever gone through. Yeah,” he pauses… “It was hard.”
* * *
Heavy rain and winds of up to 100 kilometres per hour in Cork lead Johnny Holland to joke that he’s glad to be a former rugby player on a day like this. In reality, he’d love nothing more than to be alongside Tyler Bleyendaal and Ian Keatley on the training pitch up at the University of Limerick, duelling with the conditions to accurately guide the ball from tee to goalpost.
“I don’t know why fellas go training just looking to get through it and leave as soon as they can,” Holland says. “You get fellas saying ‘I can’t wait to get off the pitch’. Why? I know it’s not always easy, but try being out injured for 12 months and see how motivated you are then to get back on that training pitch. You’d give anything for a shit session on a shit pitch when you’re in that position.”
Holland makes no attempt to sugarcoat his situation. Life as a 25-year-old former rugby player isn’t easy and it’ll probably be a while before that changes. Now training in a new state-of-the-art facility at UL, Munster are among the pace-setters in the Pro12 and there’s a Champions Cup quarter-final to look forward to in April. A good time to be involved.
The injury isn’t debilitating to the extent that it interferes with his day-to-day life. He still gets to the gym regularly and occasionally plays a bit of five-a-side football with friends. As well as studying to pursue a career in sports nutrition, Holland has been contributing as a coach with Cork Con’s U20s.
“Doing what I’m doing now, I can’t say that life is perfect because this isn’t where I wanted to be at this stage of my life. It is what I wanted to do further down the line so I just have to accept that sooner than I would have wanted. It’s hard from time to time but it’s out of my control.
“You do miss the bond with the lads,” he admits. “There’s no way you can replace the feeling of winning in a group like that. You can’t so there’s no point trying.
“I’ve been delighted for them with the season they’ve been having. And at the same time Tyler has been playing so well that it’d be tough to even get into the squad. But you’d be wasting your time dwelling on it. People mentioned to me about Joey Carbery playing for Ireland in November but it didn’t even cross my mind.
“At the start I was going to every [Munster] game and I was trying to turn up at training, but ultimately there’s no one looking out for you. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but they’ve all got their own things going on. Everyone walks past and says ‘Hi, great to see ya’, but they’re probably wondering what you’re actually doing there.
“I was putting a lot of effort into going up but you’re not really getting anything out of it. I don’t even know what I was planning on getting out of it, to be honest. I suppose I was just still attached to it. You do feel a bit isolated and that was difficult, but you eventually have to cut yourself loose.
“Of course I miss it but carrying regrets around is no way to live your life. I could be looking at guys signing contracts and feeling sorry for myself but nothing positive would come from that. I’ve been myself throughout this whole thing and I’m going to continue to do that.”
Six weeks after he announced his retirement, Holland began to see his predicament with some perspective. It was the Sunday morning of a weekend away with a few friends in Newcastle when he received a phonecall from Rory Scannell, his former Munster team-mate.
“There wasn’t really any emotion initially because it just didn’t feel like it was real, and in a way it still doesn’t. I was just completely blank,” says Holland, recalling how he learned of the death of Anthony Foley.
“Everyone knows who Axel was. No one needs me to add anything to that. But like a lot of the lads I just wish I’d had the chance to express how grateful I am to him.
“I’d say every game I was involved in with Munster was because I was selected by Axel. And there were plenty of times that he selected me when he probably shouldn’t have. He gave me so many opportunities that I always backed him and trusted him 100% when I played.
“I remember my mom saying to me after I retired that there are much worse things that can happen to you in life.
“How right she was.”