Tuesday 17 October 2017

The Big Interview: 'I looked at leaving, but playing here every week is my dream'

It took a fresh start to breathe life into forward's ambitions – now he's targeting Heineken glory

Billy Holland is among a clutch of excellent second rows at Munster who are fighting for two starting spots in Rob Penney’s selection plans
Billy Holland is among a clutch of excellent second rows at Munster who are fighting for two starting spots in Rob Penney’s selection plans

Declan Rooney

As the end of his last contract approached, Billy Holland had almost come to a gut-wrenching decision: was it time to leave Munster?

Then a 26-year-old flanker and part-time second-row, Holland – now seen as an out-and-out lock – had become frustrated with a tally of just 25 starts in five seasons as a professional rugby player.

If he was to fulfil his ambition to feature regularly on the field, he thought he would have to up sticks and leave the club he loved. But his decision to give the Munster experience one more chance has worked out, and 18 months on he is delighted he stuck around.

"Back then I hadn't been playing a whole lot. I was in two minds to move, I wondered, 'can I progress further?', 'will I get more game time elsewhere?'," he recalls.

"I looked really hard at it, I had interests from abroad. But then we knew there was a new coach coming in... no offence to Tony McGahan, he is a great coach, but it was a fresh start for everyone.

"So I signed the contract and said to myself, 'if I'm in the same position in two years' time I'll do what Denis Fogarty did and leave'. He was 28 or 29 when he left, he'd given it everything for as long as he could and he wasn't where he wanted to be.

"But I wasn't prepared to do that. It's my dream to start week-in week-out for Munster and to win a Heineken Cup with Munster.

"It was frustrating at the time, but last year I was involved in every single 23-man squad bar the Harlequins game. I got the game time I was looking for. My decision to stay was justified."

This season has been a little more frustrating for Holland and many of his colleagues as they all battle to nail down that vaunted starter's shirt. Until recent injuries to Donnacha Ryan and Ian Nagle, there were six second-rows fighting for two positions.

But on the back of such a successful campaign last year, Holland is confident he'll be here for the long haul.

"The dream is still the same, to win the Heineken Cup with Munster, So please God I'll be in the jersey for the foreseeable future," he says.

The thought of seeing the powerful forward with anything but a red shirt on his back is a scary one for many Munster fans, especially considering his family history in the province.

TRANSITION

Billy's dad Jerry is a long-serving servant of Cork Constitution, but also worked as Munster coach and manager for 10 years, bridging the transition from the amateur game to professionalism. Yet, his father's love for Munster was never rammed down Billy's throat.

"He was an influence but he never forced the game on me. He brought me up to Con as a young fella and he'd always be coaching, but he never coached me directly. If I never needed advice he was there with the answers for me, but he let me find my own way," he says.

"When I was coming towards the end of my time in the academy, he resigned as manager. The position was going full-time at that stage but he didn't want to be there when I was there.

"He didn't want to make it look like nepotism I suppose. He won't say the reason he stepped down was because I was coming up, but maybe it did come into his mind," adds the Blackrock native.

But often it is a gentle nudge in a particular direction that works best. Slowly but surely Holland got sucked in to the game of rugby, with the hours spent retrieving the balls behind the posts and the countless training sessions he watched as a young lad whetting his appetite for the game.

"There wouldn't have been crowds watching Munster back then. I remember Munster playing Connacht up in Temple Hill and they used to cut off their sleeves in the dressing-room, as they used to have long-sleeved jerseys," he says.

"I spent my time going around collecting the long ends off the sleeves. I thought it was class to have the bits of Munster sleeves.

"I also remember distinctly being out at a Munster session in the Farm years ago and Mick O'Driscoll started roaring at me to go down and get some sticky spray for the line-outs.

"It was about a kilometre back to the dressing-room but I remember him roaring at me very angrily to hurry up and get the spray. He was never in the best of moods. Times have changed massively but I was lucky to get that insight, it was hugely beneficial. It gave me a taste of it and the desire to be like those fellas."

Holland's mention of O'Driscoll is a strange one as he is slowly being labelled 'the new Mick O'Driscoll': the experienced head that everyone looks to for guidance. Holland admits he was a huge influence on his game, especially in the early days.

"Micko was the same in my time with the squad, he was still shouting and screaming at us. He was a huge character," he says.

"Near the end of his career, he was the fella that was there when all the internationals were gone. He got plenty of caps too, but he was the calming influence when the boys were away.

"I learned a huge amount from him – in fact I'd say I learned more from him than any other player in my first few years in Munster. He does a thing called 'tough love'. He is hard on fellas but in a good way.

"I've been called 'the new Micko' one or twice alright, but I don't want to be blackened like that just yet. I still have a fine head of hair and I'm still in my 20s.

"I've been called worse in my time, but I think I have a few years to before I can earn that title."

Irish Independent

Independent.ie Comments Facility

INM has taken the decision to remove the commenting facility on its online platform Independent.ie to minimise the legal risk to our business that arises from Ireland's draconian libel awards system.

We continue to look forward to receiving comments through direct email contact or via social media, some of which may still be featured on the website Independent.ie


Editor's Choice

Also in Sport