Sunday 21 January 2018

Holland's courage far from Dutch on fine debut

Holland and his team-mates – or, to be even more accurate and precise, the WhatsApp group – watched the game across the road from the Irish team base. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Holland and his team-mates – or, to be even more accurate and precise, the WhatsApp group – watched the game across the road from the Irish team base. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Billy Holland visited a pub last Friday night on the eve of his Ireland debut.

A world exclusive, my friends. Indeed, so too did a number of his Munster colleagues.

Scandalous stuff. We know Holland (31) reminds us of the old school - if only because he reminds us of his father who also played for Ireland - but this?

Of course, not a drop of alcohol passed their lips; another world exclusive folks. They were simply watching Munster's third-string play - and defeat - a second-choice New Zealand side in a Dublin pub.

Our sources say nothing stronger than orange juice passed Irish lips; there are unconfirmed reports that a forward partook of a soda water & lime, but our legal people won't allow such speculation.

Time was when a Munster player making his international debut would not hesitate before quaffing something a tad stronger, a sample of the tried and tested Dutch courage, to get him through the week of a debut.

Holland and his team-mates - or, to be even more accurate and precise, the WhatsApp group - watched the game across the road from the Irish team base.

The Shelbourne Hotel and the Irish Rugby team remain the one constant through generations of change, from the amateur to the professional, from Where am I? to WhatsApp.

Holland and Co. navigated their way back to the Shelbourne with far less difficulty than was often encountered by Moss Keane and some of his gang back in the day.


Keane famously indulged the vices of good living rather more than the current crop, but in an innocent era when it was possible for sporting and social lives to effortlessly intertwine.

Before his 1974 bow in Paris - after the obligatory few Thursday pints to assuage his fear of flying - Ireland went to an eve of game reception at the French embassy.

Sean Lynch warned him not to be seen drinking pints or he might never play for Ireland again. Instead, the bould Mossie cradled in his shovel-like hands a series of glasses of Tio Pepe. A bigger mistake.

Nevertheless, Ireland won 9-6. Keane would play in Paris on five more occasions. The only real damage done to his body on that first weekend was eating too many snails; someone had told him they were prawns.

The only reputational fear for a debutant nowadays seems to be the requirement to sing a song.

"There's eight of us, so I don't think that will happen," said Holland. "We'd be here all night!"

"There is going to be a bit of harmony going on," added James Tracy - quite aptly, on a night where Ireland start and finish strongly.

Mercifully, despite the passage of time and the advance of professionalism, passion and innocence remain inured to suffocation. It still matters.

Tracy had the utter thrill of scoring a try with his final touch of the game.

Emotion poured forth; as the crowds thinned, he sought out two people in the crowd; parents Jim and Síle were embraced.

It is this private moment in public that encapsulates the raw emotion that the players' words cannot possibly express. How could they?

"That was special," Tracy said. "I mean, all those days and years of picking me up and dropping me off. It's been a long journey to get to this point.

"A lot of highs and lows for me during that time. It was great to share that moment with them."

For his colleagues, the pinprick of emotion that must seep through, even when the demands for cold calculation are so pressing, arrived at different times.

Tracy was on the bench and so wasn't steeled for an immediate impact upon the game; his Leinster colleague Garry Ringrose was.

"It was a pretty special moment," Ringrose explained when asked to recall the playing of the anthem.

"I was thinking about my friends, family, past coaches and people that I've dealt with who have helped me get to this point. I was trying to do them justice."

Age did not offer a defence to that creeping tingle of anxiety, as Holland discovered.

"There was excitement, but I didn't have a great night's sleep last night to be honest with you, I was a bit edgy in bed alright," he confessed. Perhaps a pint may have relaxed him, but how and ever…

"Then you try to keep telling yourself that you have almost 150 caps for Munster, that you've done this many times, it's just another game of rugby.

"But when you're standing, singing the national anthem, it is extra special. A full house on a Saturday night in the Aviva is a special occasion and I really, really enjoyed that."

And yet it is right that Holland should have endured a sleep-defying eve, for playing international rugby remains the pinnacle. And there will never be another debut.

Tracy said that, yes, he did enjoy the day and breathlessly followed it by saying it all happened so, so quickly.

The mind gurus tell you to enjoy the moment, but what if the moment feels like a whole day and the whole day feels like one long moment and you find it difficult to tell the difference.

"It was the longest and the shortest day of my life," said Tracy.


"I hung out with Cian Healy a bit and then went for coffee with a few lads. We passed the time, it wasn't too bad. I went over a few things that I wanted to get out of today.

"It feels like it has gone in the blink of an eye now. At one o'clock it felt like it was a long day, but now it feels okay."

To tell the truth, it feels mighty fine. Joe Schmidt was anxious himself, then impressed with how the side discovered both the pressure of Test match rugby and the ability to work through it.

There may be a next time; then again, there may not. Seven years ago, Ireland also beat Canada and also boasted eight debutants, but only one of them achieved anything like a considerable career in green afterwards.

We have been here before and what follows is not always a straight line.

But for a few precious Saturday night hours at least, eight men could leave the Shelbourne Hotel, sup from a cup of cheer (whatever it might contain) and think themselves eight of the most fortunate men in the land.

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