Alan Quinlan: Holland was like a young ROG - here's why his retirement is such a huge blow
Published 03/09/2016 | 02:30
Tony McGahan is telling us what to do. It's 2011 and it's cold and it's wet in the University of Limerick. And training isn't going well. Fellas who normally catch every pass are dropping them today. A level of grouchiness is noticeable, fellas annoyed with themselves as much as with one another.
And then something happens that creates a buzz. This new guy I've neither seen before, nor heard of, gets the ball and executes these drop-outs to the forwards with an almost magical precision. We all stop and look.
"Who's he?" I ask ROG.
"Johnny Holland is his name," he tells me.
I quietly nod. "There's potential there."
There certainly was. Johnny Holland could move, he could kick and could pass. He was composed. He was quick. I remember that day feeling a little like when I first saw Ronan O'Gara come to training.
When ROG first arrived on the scene, I thought he was the mascot, so young-looking, so small. Did I know then he'd mature into this relentless force of nature, an incredible machine that was mentally unbreakable and so determined to succeed? I'd be the world's biggest liar if I said I did. Yet for 15 years, he produced at the highest level and in all that time, the Munster schools system must have churned out 80-100 out-halves and yet none of them came close to making it in the way O'Gara did.
And that's why Thursday's news that Holland had to retire was such a blow. Players like him aren't being delivered off some mythical conveyor belt.
They simply aren't around. Out-half is such a pivotal position and Munster have struggled in the years since O'Gara retired to fill it. And then last season, in a dark year, a little sunlight crept in towards the end of the campaign.
A day out at the Aviva. Holland produces. His left leg was as good as anyone's. Leinster beat Munster but he scores a try and gets all of Munster's points. And when people walk away from the stadium that night, there's only one name on their lips.
"We have a young out-half coming through, he's Munster born and bred, Hallelujah," a friend texts.
On a personal level, I was delighted because when you retire as a player, when you're a fella who loves all sports, all you really want to see are young guys coming on.
And that was how we felt that day at the Aviva. He had enhanced his reputation. He wasn't young Johnny Holland anymore. He gave hope and we all thought that here was a guy who could go on and play for Ireland. Here was a natural talent.
How good could he have been? We'll never know. He never got to fulfil his potential, never got the chance to stop people talking about O'Gara. So on Thursday, sadness struck me. I get that way when I think of any lad who has to prematurely walk away from the game.
And while it makes me thankful that I got there to the bitter end, and retire on my terms, it doesn't stop me thinking of the what-might-have-been for these guys.
The thing about being a professional sportsman is that you know you're lucky. You don't work. You get paid for doing something you love - but just because it provides you with a salary does not mean it is work. There might be pressure but you learn to like it. There might be low moments but every day you walk into training is like an extension of your childhood.
At the start, when rugby turned professional and I was offered my first contract, I felt like a cheat. Why were people paying me for doing something I'd be doing anyway? I'd spent five years as a mechanic. That was work. This was a dream.
So when the dream dies, as it did for Holland this week, he'll have to accept that there will be a grieving process to go through. There will be anger, sadness, pain and regret.
In one way it's almost better that it happens to him at 25 rather than 28 - because if he was older and had have gotten more of a taste of it, it may - in a strange way - have been even harder for him to accept.
And I get the sense from the upbeat and intelligent nature of his statement and from the fact he had the foresight to complete his university degree in commerce that he will make a decent career for himself. That Johnny will be good.
But what about Munster? How will they fare out?
Because this isn't just a blow for an individual just yet another blow for the province, one they could have done without.
Over the last five years, they've lost Paul O'Connell, Ronan O'Gara, John Hayes, Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, Denis Leamy, David Wallace, Doug Howlett, Barry Murphy, Felix Jones and Ian Dowling to retirement.
Plus, Peter Stringer and Donncha O'Callaghan have moved on.
And in their absence, a leadership vacuum has been created. Results have dipped and so have expectation levels. So heading into this year, they face yet another huge challenge. The biggest one is to make the top four in the Pro12 and get out of their group in Europe.
No one really expects them to do so - especially when you look at the group they've been lobbed into - with Racing, last season's French champions, Glasgow, the 2015 Pro12 champions, and Leicester, who beat them home and away last season.
So even though standards have fallen in the last couple of years, when you think of last year's disappointing campaign, the positives towards the end of it were backed up by the arrival of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Niehaber, the respective appointments as director of rugby and defence coach. Their arrivals will have eased the pressure resting on Anthony Foley's shoulders.
Everyone knew some form of change was needed and when a new man comes in and new signings are made, things - on the face of it - can be made to look positive.
And while I like the fact Erasmus knew beforehand what he was getting into and that he has a reputation for bringing younger players through - something he did really well with the Cheetahs - the reality is that this is a tough gig he has taken on.
What helps is the fact that Peter O'Mahony is back. A spiritual leader, as much as he is a captain, Peter has O'Connell-esque qualities about him which Rassie and Anthony will need when they want a tone set in training.
The tone Munster need to set today is an aggressive one. If they can play with an enthusiasm, an intensity and a consistency - and stop coughing up soft tries then people will be a whole lot happier this season than they were last year.
It's hardly too much to ask for, is it?