'I came very, very close to leaving. I tossed a coin and it landed on ‘leave’ so I tossed it another 30 times'

Billy Holland was forced to bide his time during the early stages of his Munster career but now, at the age of 32, his is the first name on the team-sheet.

Holland shares a joke with the media in Limerick earlier this week.
Holland shares a joke with the media in Limerick earlier this week.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

BILLY HOLLAND LAUGHS at the suggestion he’d ever go to a coach and tell them he needed a rest due to fatigue. He’s waited too long and worked too hard to spurn any opportunity to pull on the red jersey.

The 32-year-old has been making up for lost time of late. And how.

Forced to bide his time and wait in the wings during the first half of his Munster career behind the likes of Paul O’Connell, Donnacha O’Callaghan and Mick O’Driscoll, the Cork native has only now got the chance to prove his worth. And he’s certainly done that.

Holland has started all 13 of Munster’s games this season and, in total, the second row has featured in 42 of the province’s 46 outings since the start of the 2016/17 campaign. Last season, he played the most minutes of the entire squad with a remarkable 1,940 minutes of game time in 29 appearances — and that’s not to mention an Ireland debut against Canada during the November series.

“It is what everyone wants to do, play every weekend,” he says. “I suppose the more you play, the fitter you get, the more you’re in tune with the team and the more you play the easier it gets.

“Certainly when you are at the end of a 10-game block there before the autumn internationals the energy levels were beginning to wane, but you have a nice break then so flying it again.”

Consistent and ever-present, Holland has developed into a key component of the province’s pack and his experience and leadership skills make him a valuable commodity for any dressing room. Not least because he’s Cork-born and bred and Munster through and through.

And that’s what ultimately kept him at the club.

A senior debut came at the age of 22, a European bow two years later but opportunities were few and far between thereafter and he only had a handful of starts to show for the first couple of years of his career.

“I suppose when you have to work hard for something you do appreciate it more. I didn’t get anything easy, sitting behind Donnacha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell, Mick O’Driscoll and Donncha Ryan for years. But you learn a huge amount off them, and I’d like to think I did learn a huge amount off them, and then when you get your opportunity it means a hell of a lot, and I see guys who are 19/20 who are in the squad and kind of peeved off at not playing a whole lot and they’ve got a cap or two, and I hadn’t even been capped at that stage.

Billy Holland celebrates after the game Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“You’d kind of be laughing at them, but it does make it all the sweeter, and big days like last weekend and next Sunday in Welford Road, they’re the games you play for, and they’re the reason I stayed put and worked hard to get my position, and it does make it all the sweeter, particularly when you win.”

Twice Holland — in 2011 and then 2013, when an unnamed English club were interested in his services — seriously considered leaving his home province due to a lack of game time. He could read the situation, understand the reality of professional sport. There just wasn’t an opening for him.

“Yea, many (times),” he said, when asked if he had considered moving. “Every two years when your contract was up. You have to think about it. There was one stage when I came very, very close to leaving and I tossed a coin and it landed on ‘leave’. So I tossed it another 30 times and that itself gave me the answer I was looking for.”

“Yea, it could have worked differently. There were injuries the following year and I got a few more games. It’s stubbornness. There’s plenty of fellas. You look at Tommy O’Donnell. I was in the academy with Tommy, the same with Duncan Williams, it’s stubbornness that keeps you in there, and it makes you work harder than when you’re on the pitch. You really don’t want to let the side down. It means a huge amount to you.”

But patience, perseverance and, in his own words, stubbornness, meant he stayed put and fought tooth and nail. In his first four seasons as a Munster player, Holland played 29 games. In the last six, he’s played 144.

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He’ll play another important role this weekend when Munster look to become just the third side to beat the Tigers at Welford Road in the last 36 European games at the venue — but Holland and his team-mates are expecting a backlash from the hosts.

“We expected it last year, we expected them to come hard at our breakdown and they did and we weren’t able to handle it, so we have to take lessons from that,” he continues.

Billy Holland celebrates after the game Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Leicester have never lost back-to-back games in Rounds 3 and 4 in Europe in, I think, 17 years, so they will be gunning for us after last weekend.

“I think we need to focus on, as I said, the breakdown, playing smart not running up blind alleys and giving them good opportunities. We need to improve on our discipline, there are plenty of areas of our game we need to improve on, but I would expect them to come at our breakdown and expect them to move the ball around quite a lot.

“I would say they see a lot of space on the width against us, so that is where I expect to see them come at us.”

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