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'If you're a good leader, you show vulnerability and I think I had to do that'

Munster man Billy Holland will retire from playing professional rugby at the end of this season.

Billy Holland celebrates a try for Munster.
Billy Holland celebrates a try for Munster.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

BILLY HOLLAND IS hoping to go out on a high by helping Munster to a trophy but even if there is no silverware at the end, the Cork man will still be able to reflect proudly on a remarkable career with his native province.

The 35-year-old will retire at the end of this season as the second most capped player in the province’s history behind only Donncha O’Callaghan. Holland earned an Ireland cap along the way too.

Written off by many people many times, Holland has endured. He has had six different head coaches since his Munster debut in 2007 and remembers one of them, Rob Penney, suggesting he would be better off moving somewhere else. Holland stayed the course.

He only hit the 100-cap mark for Munster when was turning 30 in 2015. Since then, Holland has added another 141 caps as he has flourished in recent seasons, leading lineouts, influencing young players, and delivering consistent performances.

You won’t hear a bad word said about Holland by anyone who knows him. Along with his achievements on the pitch, he takes justifiable pride in being awarded the ‘Contribution to Irish Society‘ prize at the Irish Rugby Players Awards last year. 

It came after Holland and his wife, Lanlih, raised awareness and funds in excess of €550,000 for Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Crumlin, the children’s ward in Cork University Hospital, and Ronald McDonald House – all in memory of their daughter, Emmeline, who passed away at the age of just six months old due to a heart defect. 

“I think what myself and my wife and my family went through was incredibly difficult and that’s putting it mildly,” said Holland this week. “But what we managed to do afterwards with the support of our families and the public is something I’m very, very proud of.

“I suppose I don’t particularly like the spotlight or anything like that but I was encouraged, and thankfully so, to use the status I have as a professional rugby player to make people more aware of what goes on in hospitals around the country and what many people have to deal with, with sick children and the money we managed to raise and the awareness we brought around the place.

“And we talk about if you’re a good leader in a club, you show vulnerability and I think I had to do that. I’m very glad that we did that and that award is something that I’m proud of receiving on behalf of my family, certainly.”

billy-holland Holland has played for Munster 241 times. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Family is a big part of Holland’s decision to hang up his boots at the end of this season.

He could have looked to play on but the timing feels right to him and he is looking forward to having his weekends back.

His son, Matthew, turned one on Wednesday, and being there is important to Holland.  

“I’ve had first-hand experience of how important family is and how it is so important to enjoy the everyday moments of life, and the ups and downs of that.

“I have an incredible appreciation of watching my son taking his first steps at the moment. I am lucky to be able to see that. You don’t want to be missing that because I’m away for a weekend or I’m away at training or what not.

“Everyone works 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, when you finish playing rugby, so it’s not like I’m just going to be sitting at home but rugby is all-consuming and it dominates family life.

“My wife has sacrificed many things over the years to allow me to play rugby. You can’t plan ahead – these are all things that professional rugby players deal with, that’s just the way it is. But I have a strong appreciation of wanting to be at home. It is the little things that I take joy out of in my home life.”

Holland will miss rugby when he’s out of it. He knows he’ll find himself sitting on the couch watching games, wondering if he could still be having an impact on the pitch. He has loved every bit of it so far. 

Playing in the famous match against the All Blacks at Thomond Park in 2008 was a highlight but Holland is no doubt that the proudest occasion was Munster’s win over Glasgow at the Limerick venue the day after Anthony Foley’s funeral.

“What we did as a squad and as a club that week, how we composed ourselves and managed to go out and perform that day, against a quality Glasgow team at the time, it was incredibly impressive,” said Holland. 

billy-holland-after-the-game Holland at Thomond Park after the clash with Glasgow in 2016. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It would have been very easy to go out with a lot of emotion and just perform for 10 minutes, but I think the manner in which we did it, even with Earlsie getting sent off, it was a testament to everything we had done under Axel. The atmosphere that day was just off the charts.”

Holland is one of the players who took up Foley’s mantle. He has had the best of his career in these last five seasons, his importance for Munster never as high as it has been in recent years. He won his single Ireland cap in 2016 against Canada under Joe Schmidt and though he would have loved more opportunities, there is pride there too.

“I know that he [Schmidt] liked me but there were guys that he rated ahead of me. That’s perfectly OK, that’s his decision. I’m proud to have played for Ireland and I’m proud of a lot of things I have done in my career.”

Holland has captained Munster and been a mentor to younger players but has also had to remain ferociously competitive himself.

“You know, there’s a balance, if five years ago I was going around telling any young second row all my tricks of the trade, I probably would have been gone long ago.

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“So there’s a balance. You kind of grow into a leadership role and it evolves every year, and I think this year as a group we did a lot of work with Tyler Bleyendaal in the off-season as leaders, as individuals, about opening up and becoming more vulnerable, opening up communication lines with younger guys and everything from how we speak to a guy, tone…. times change.

“I’m playing with guys who are… like, I think [academy back row] Alex Kendellen was two or three when I joined the academy so you’re dealing with guys from a different generation, and you’ve got to move with it and you’ve got to learn how to get the best out of all these lads.

“In terms of imparting my knowledge, certainly in the last year or so I’ve sat down with the second rows a little bit more. We all help each other out.

“We have lineout meetings and if you’re not playing you help guys out, certainly, but this is also a dog eat dog, selfish world to a certain extent. This is professional sport, you have to have something unique to yourself and to your own game otherwise you won’t last long and everyone would be the same.

“So you help guys but certainly over the next four months I’ll be as open as possible but as I said, I think this year as a leadership group we’ve really grown and improved despite Covid.”

billy-holland Holland at Munster training this week. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Holland is focused on the next few months and rounding out his time as a professional player with Munster in winning fashion, but what of the future?

He jokes that he’s “not a soccer player” and will have to get on with his next career but it won’t be in rugby.

“I’ve a few things in the pipeline, nothing concrete. I’m not going to go into coaching. It is the most time-consuming, difficult job that I’ve seen. It’s a very tough job and I’ve a lot of respect for all coaches.

“I’m not going to just walk totally away from rugby but I’m not going to be working in rugby in a professional capacity.

“Look, I’m lucky. I’ve been through college, I’ve done a couple of courses and so a few things in the pipeline but nothing concrete. I’m just going to take a little bit of time when I finish to assess what I want to do, relax, reset and go again with whatever the future may hold.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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