Munster Man

'I'm not leaving this place until I win something. I need to win something'

33-year-old Billy Holland has shown resilience over the course his lifelong love affair with Munster.

MUNSTER HAVE BEEN using the services of a South African performance psychologist, Pieter Kruger, since last summer in their bid to end an eight-year run without a trophy.

Kruger – who has also worked with the Springboks, Harlequins, and Brumbies – had some interesting feedback for Billy Holland.

Billy Holland celebrates winning Holland feels Munster are on the bring of trophy success. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Each of the Munster players underwent a detailed, hour-long psychological test and Holland was intrigued to hear Kruger’s assessment.

“One of the things that came back for me is that I have a very good ability to go from not switched on at all to being very switched on quickly,” says Holland. 

Hearing that has given the second row a renewed confidence this season and it was perfectly-timed given that Holland his wife, Lanlih, had their first child, Emmeline, in November.

“Emmeline has put a nice perspective on things in terms of rugby,” says Holland. “You have less sleep and you’re knackered but when I’m away from rugby, I don’t have time to think about rugby.

“When I’m at home, I have a lot of work to do. It’s so enjoyable and I love it.

“Maybe I switch off from rugby more. A lot of people say this when they have a child, but there’s definitely something to it.

“Because I do a lot of analysis there have maybe been times over the years where I’ve been guilty of going from a match on Saturday, reviewing it on Sunday, back into training on Monday. Maybe I wasn’t getting any time away from rugby.

“I don’t think about rugby as much now on our days off. I can come in and know that I can go from zero to being clued in very quickly. Other guys can’t. Whether that’s experience, my age or just how my mind works, I’ve taken confidence from that.”

Holland, 33, has been in superb form during the current campaign – during which he has become the 10th player to reach 200 appearances for Munster – and feels he’s “playing some of the best rugby of my life at the moment.”

The Cork man has been prominent throughout this Champions Cup campaign, making appearances in all seven of Munster’s games so far, and will feature off the bench against Saracens in today’s semi-final in Coventry.

Billy Holland celebrates with fans after the game Holland is deeply passionate about Munster. Gary Carr / INPHO Gary Carr / INPHO / INPHO

Holland recognises that the added competition of new signing Tadhg Beirne and the emerging Fineen Wycherley has pushed him to play better.

After Holland was a first-choice lock in Europe for the past two campaigns, Beirne’s arrival from Scarlets in the summer means he has largely been asked to provide from the bench, but he has been a genuine impact sub, particularly in wins over Gloucester and Exeter.

“I want to start all the European games but you try to exert what you would have exerted in an 80-minute performance into a 20-minute period in terms of energy,” says Holland. “That’s gone well.

“I came on early for Pete [O'Mahony] against Gloucester away and ended up with a lot of ball in hand. I ended up in the six position, which is where I used to play, so afterwards I was joking that maybe I need to go back into the back row!”

Holland’s offload for a Keith Earls try was a highlight, while he has produced some memorable lineout steals during this campaign, as well as being a pivotal figure in some big Pro14 wins such as last weekend’s comeback victory away to Benetton.

While all eyes are on the Champions Cup today, Holland feels that win in Italy underlines why Munster believe they can secure silverware in the coming weeks.

“There’s a quiet confidence. I think we’re in a better place at this point in time compared to other years,” says Holland.

“In the last seven or eight years, we’ve rarely had a whole squad that has had that burning desire to win a medal. I think this year… there are guys who played in Treviso last week who might not play again this season but they know and understand that winning and getting five points over there increases our chances of getting a medal – with a home [Pro14] semi-final potentially in Thomond Park.

“When you’re starting week in, week out, it’s very easy to want that medal. But to have 40 plus guys burning to win something is a difficult thing to do. Leinster have had that over the last couple of years and I think we’re getting there. It does feel different now.”

Billy Holland with his parents Jerry and Jean after he made his 200th apearance Holland with his parents, Jerry and Jean, after making his 200th appearance for Munster. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Holland has been with Munster for the long, hard slog and is more hopeful than ever that trophy glory awaits them.

Munster Rugby is in his blood.

His grandfather, Redmond Holland, was a selector for the province and his father, Jerry, was a three-times capped Ireland international while also playing, coaching and managing Munster. 

Billy was a ball boy at Cork Constitution RFC from the age of six, relishing being in amongst the giants of men in the AIL as he helped to clean out the changing rooms and run water bottles.

He recalls watching Munster play Connacht at Temple Hill when there was a crowd of only around 100 people – a far cry from the provincial situation these days. 

Then, with Jerry acting as team manager through to Munster’s glory period of two Heineken Cups, Billy recalls growing up around the squad as they developed into famous European champions.

Holland was a talented player himself, shining for Christians Brothers College in Cork and moving onto unpaid sub-academy terms with Munster in 2004, although he looks back and reflects that he was a little too relaxed through that period until some sharp words from then-academy manager Hamish Adams when he was playing for UCC.

“He put a rocket up my arse and six months later I had a development contract. It’s gone from there.”

Another key part of Holland’s development was playing for and winning with Cork Con after switching back to his boyhood club.

Billy Holland wins the lineout Holland is a proud Cork Con man. Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

He won an AIL as a number eight and firmly believes that he got “a lot of my competitive instincts” from playing club rugby with Con.

Holland made his Munster debut in 2007 and the love affair has continued until this day.

“There’s something addictive about it,” says Holland of playing for Munster. “For ages, the goal was to start for Munster and then for the last couple of years, the burning desire is to win something with Munster.

“I’m not leaving this place until I win something, I need to win something.”

Not that Holland hasn’t had his lows during his 11 years with Munster’s senior squad, particularly given that he has been behind the likes of Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Donnacha Ryan, and Mick O’Driscoll in the second row pecking order.

Holland very nearly left Munster twice – in 2011 and again in 2013.

In 2013, there was a concrete offer from a UK club on the table and Holland ended up tossing a coin in a bid to make his decision. The coin landed on the side indicating he should leave Munster, so he tossed it 49 more times.

The tally, to his relief, ended up at 26-24 to stay with Munster.

Patience, perseverance, hard work. Holland has finally become a prominent figure for Munster over the past four seasons – which in turn propelled him towards winning his first Ireland cap against Canada in November 2016 at the age of 31.

He hasn’t played for Ireland since but Joe Schmidt’s continuing esteem for Holland was underlined when the national team coach called him into his training squad during this year’s Six Nations after injuries struck in the second row.

Ireland’s Billy Holland Holland made his Ireland debut in 2016. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“Am I stubborn? Yes, for better and for worse,” admits Holland. “I am stubborn, you can ask my wife! You do have to have stubbornness in this game.”

Holland took some of that stubborn edge from Anthony Foley, who had a major influence on the second row’s Munster career from the beginning.

The loss of ‘Axel’ in 2016 was a grievous blow for Holland and everyone in Munster.

“It’s hard to put into words,” says Holland. “You’re with him pretty much every day, learning the whole way up.

“I made my debut as a six and he was at eight. I remember in my second game away to the Dragons, I missed a tackle off a scrum five yards off their line and he made a tackle on their number eight, Joe Bearman, 90 yards down the pitch. He fucked me out of it!

“The little things. I remember I was in the academy and I went to a meeting without a notebook. He said I should have a notebook and write everything down. I’ve had a notebook at every single meeting since for the last 13 years. I learned so much from him.

“He was the most stubborn man I have ever met, in a really positive way.”

Holland respected how Foley evolved for the betterment of Munster – from player to assistant coach, A team boss, Munster head coach, then back to assistant coach when Rassie Erasmus came onboard. 

The second row says he learned as much as ever from Foley in those last few months, when Axel relished being back on the pitch coaching.

Holland and the Munster players try to call into Foley’s wife, Olive, and sons, Dan and Tony, every couple of months to check in, although he says that they have all leaned on the Foley family too. 

“Olive helped a lot of the players to get through it because she was so positive. She’s very religious and she had a very good outlook on it. She celebrated him.

Jerry Holland and Anthony Foley celebrate Holland's father, Jerry, with Axel after the 2006 Heineken Cup win. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“You just do what he wanted you to do. That Glasgow game – he would have been horrified if we hadn’t played that match and even more horrified if we’d lost.”

Holland still uses some of Foley’s “timeless” lineout moves and stresses that he remains a huge part of the Munster fabric today.

“His stubbornness and will to win are very much still burning and that will never change while this group of players is here,” says Holland, who is contracted through until the summer of 2020.

“I do think this group of lads is on a special journey. For everything that has happened – from losing Axel to losing too many semi-finals and finals where we haven’t performed.

“Who knows what the outcome will be, but I do believe we will win something sooner rather than later.”

Gavan Casey and Murray Kinsella are joined by Andy Dunne to preview the Champions Cup semi-finals and all the week’s news on the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly:

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