Billy Holland: 'Our job is to focus on what's in front of us and perform'
Battling for his first-team role is nothing new for affable Cork lineout guru, who continues to enhance his game, writes Daragh Small
Billy Holland has been through it all with Munster. He came in just at the tail end of their double European Cup-winning teams and has stood the test of time as he attempts to lead them back to promised land in 2019.
Holland has played alongside some of the best second-rows this country has ever produced: Paul O'Connell, Donncha O'Callaghan, Mick O'Driscoll and Donnacha Ryan. But the 33-year-old Cork native remains in the set-up in 2018.
He has gone from a time where he played 12 weekends in a row, to fighting it out for his position in one of the most competitive Munster second-rows ever.
The arrival of Tadhg Beirne has added to the quality and quantity that comes with Jean Kleyn, Darren O'Shea and Fineen Wycherley all vying for a spot in the engine room.
"There are five second-rows in Munster and we all have different styles," says Holland. "Tadhg could be a No 8, JK is your bashing South African No 4, I would be a very hard-working player who enjoys set-piece and does the basics quite well.
"We are all different and it's probably good from a coach's point of view that we are all different. You can do horses for courses.
"Everyone wants to play each week. We all want to start every week. There are going to be two guys starting, one guy on the bench, and two guys disappointed every week. That's the way squads work.
"I have been in a position in Munster where there were only two second-rows fit. You play week in, week out and even though it's great at the time and you play every week, you don't play your best rugby when you play 12 weekends in a row which I have done before.
"You can't play incredible rugby 12 weekends in a row, it doesn't matter who you are. Particularly in a high attritional position like second-row where there are very high contacts and metres run. That's why we have big squads."
Holland has notched up 194 appearances for Munster and his experience has been crucial during a period of transition for the province.
Holland certainly prides himself on his attention to detail and putting in the long hours of study and preparation. As a result, he is regarded as one of Ireland's top lineout leaders, a talent he is more than willing to pass on to the province's future stars.
He sees the current crop as being some of the best ever produced in Munster.
"There is savage competition in the second-row at the moment. You have got Darren O'Shea and Fineen Wycherley as well," says Holland.
"I would like to think I am used to the competition. I was behind Paul O'Connell, Donncha O'Callaghan and Mick O'Driscoll for years. Then I was scrapping with Mark Chisholm and Donnacha Ryan for places.
"It's a good place for Munster Rugby to be in when you have got a good bunch of locks who can interchange."
While Holland is moving into the latter end of his career, Wycherley is just in his third season playing first team rugby at Munster.
He turned 21 this week and with 12 appearances under his belt already, Holland believes there is massive potential there.
"Fineen is training with us full-time. He is on a development contract this year and I think he has moved onto a full contract for next season," says Holland.
"That exposure to training full-time with better players is going to make a good player better. And then exposure in games and playing more games. He got his first start for Munster over in Zebre.
"All of those things are going to be good for a young fella to reach his potential and get better. That is something he has done at the moment which is great to see.
"There are a great bunch of young fellas coming through. Calvin Nash and these guys are coming through and pushing guys.
"You know you have a good squad when the young fellas are pushing the older fellas."
Beirne's addition was vital to see Munster kick on another gear this season, having failed at the semi-final stage in Europe and the Guinness PRO14 last season.
But it means Holland has found it more difficult to find a place in the team. He has still played nine times this season after he was curtailed with an injury against Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun on September 7.
"I popped a rib cartilage against Glasgow. It's one of those ones which is sore and takes a while to heal. You still have a lump in your ribs but it's just one of those ones that you can't really get physio on, it just takes time," says Holland.
"I was just poaching at a breakdown and I got cleared out from the side. It was frustrating. I have been very lucky in my career overall with injuries.
"I would classify myself as a durable player. I have very few injuries, touch wood. A few little hiccups here and there isn't the end of the world.
"There are lads who are plagued with injuries. Liam O'Connor is back training with us since last Monday having got injured 12 months ago.
"It is great to see guys like him coming back. He had a career-threatening injury and he has done really well with his rehab. It's great to have him back on the pitch."
December is always a fun time to be a professional rugby player in Ireland. The interprovincial derbies provide ample opportunity to put your hand up and attract the attention of Joe Schmidt before the Six Nations.
Munster have lots of players looking to stake a claim but the focus remains on Castres in the Champions Cup this weekend.
"We have three interpros in a row after this Castres game. That is a heavy workload and we will need our full squad for that," adds Holland.
"From a European point of view, we are in a position where we are still in with a chance of qualifying for the quarter-finals. These back-to-back games are unusual and they are always very difficult.
"You can't look past this Castres game, if you start looking at the inter-pros you are setting yourself up for a fall.
"When you have a lot of big games coming up, it's the coach's job to select the team and do the tactics, that's their job.
"Our job is just to focus on what's in front of us this weekend and perform."