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'They’re off winning Grand Slams and you’re off in f***ing Rotherham'

At the age of 31, Billy Holland will win his first Ireland cap against Canada tomorrow.

WORKING HARD FOR an Ireland cap is almost part of Billy Holland’s DNA.

The 31-year-old second row has toiled away at Munster for the best part of a decade and had essentially stopped dreaming of an international opportunity in recent years, but will make his Ireland debut tomorrow against Canada.

The Cork man’s story is rather unique, but then his father would have told him all about making sacrifices for an Ireland cap.

Billy Holland Holland makes his Ireland debut tomorrow in Dublin. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Jerry Holland was forced to quit his job to travel on Ireland’s controversial tour to apartheid South Africa in 1981, four years before Billy was born.

Jerry, also a second row, won two caps in two Test defeats to the Boks on during a seven-game tour that was comdemned by a number of politicians, including then Taoiseach Charlie Haughey.

“He tends not to tell too many stories,” says Billy with a laugh when asked what he has heard from his father about that 1981 trip.

“He was on the tour of South Africa, which he had to quit his job for, and because of apartheid there was a lot of controversy over whether the Irish team should go or not.

He was recently married and quit his job, I don’t think the mother was too happy about it. He was just married and headed off for two or three months to South Africa.”

The job had been in an alarms business, explains Billy. Rugby was Jerry’s decision and he went on to coach and manage Munster in the professional era.

Jerry won one further Ireland cap against Wales in 1986, and clearly he instilled good rugby habits in his son. Some of Billy’s earliest memories involve Munster rugby.

“I remember as a young fella going out to Munster training sessions and having to run back in to get sticky spray for Mick O’Driscoll, who looked as old as an 18-year-old as he does now!

Jerry Holland tries to keep the ball Jerry Holland won three Ireland caps. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I was going up to [Cork] Con to watch Munster play Connacht in front of maybe 200 people. So that would have been part of the reason why I would have stayed put. I knew what I wanted. Just because you know what you want doesn’t mean you’ll get it, but you’ve something to chase.”

The “stayed put” is in reference to Holland’s decision to remain with Munster through some rather difficult years.

An Ireland U19 and U21 international, the Cork man made his senior Munster debut in 2007 against the Scarlets and earned his first full contract in 2009.

There were seven starts in the 2009/10 season, but the following three years were frustrating ones for Holland as he found the likes of Paul O’Connell, the aforementioned O’Driscoll, Donncha O’Callaghan and Donnacha Ryan ahead of him in the pecking order.

While Holland learned huge amounts from those locks, there were also a time when he seriously considered a move away from home.

“A couple of years back I was thinking of going to a different club across the water and I was tossing a coin,” says Holland. “I tossed the coin 50 times and it ended up something like 26-24 against Munster.

“I was just like, ‘This is mad’ and I just said, ‘I’m going to give it another two years.’ It’s something that would drive you a little bit mental when you are younger.

“You see guys… I played U20s with Seanie O’Brien, Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney – all these lads. They’re off winning Grand Slams and you’re off in fucking Rotherham or some dive like that playing ‘A’ rugby.

Billy Holland after the game Holland has emerged as a key Munster man in recent years. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It makes you stronger. It makes you mentally strong. You either sink or swim and, look, it can go either way. I stuck at it, I was stubborn, put the foot down and kept training hard – kept working on my game. I’m getting an opportunity now to make my debut so I’m happy.”

The offer in the UK tempted Holland, certainly, but Munster was his home and turning his back on his home province would have been too hurtful.

“I would be quite a stubborn individual but I would have grown up with my father being involved with Munster and I love Munster and I love Irish rugby and everything it represents, getting to play in front of your family week in, week out.

“You know, if I went off and to the UK I would have been on my own and that’s something that means a lot to me.”

While Holland pledged himself to Munster and is now a key part of the squad, he says his international dreams faded away slowly.

“A couple of years back you would be thinking about it quite a lot but then you realise, as you get little bit older, that until you are starting for Munster and you’re starting regularly, you’re never going to be up here and you’re never going to get an opportunity.”

The difference for Holland in the past three seasons has been regular games for Munster, as Anthony Foley and now Rassie Erasmus have backed him to grow as a player.

Leading the lineout at times, hammering rucks and topping the tackles charts, Holland has racked up 56 appearances in last three seasons.

“When you play regularly, you get more up to the speed of things, the game slows down,” says Holland.

Billy Holland, Donnacha Ryan, Simon Zebo, Conor Murray and CJ Stander celebrate winning Holland was part of Ireland's 27-man squad in Chicago last week. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“If you’re playing once a month, you’re just thinking about your lungs and just struggling through it the whole time whereas if you’re playing regularly then you’re up to the speed of the game and are able to dominate collisions and not focus on calls and moves and worry about those. You’re able to focus on yourself and your physicality.

“I’ve always been somebody who has got through a huge amount of work.

“I suppose over the last two years I’ve added a bit more physicality to my game and I think that has made a difference in the tackle, in carries and the breakdown. That’s a second row’s job: to be physical in those contact areas.”

That’s what Joe Schmidt will expect to see tomorrow as Holland finally follows in his father’s footsteps.

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Murray Kinsella

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