Tuesday 24 October 2017

Long road back leaves out-half hungry for game-time

The Big Interview with Johnny Holland: Cork kicker extra keen to return from shoulder and hamstring injuries as competition heats up

Johnny Holland is determined to get back on the field after recent injury frustration
Johnny Holland is determined to get back on the field after recent injury frustration

Daragh Small

Johnny Holland knows the tendonitis in his right leg has reared up at the worst possible time.

As he agonised through the months and months of rehab for his hamstring injury, this was the time he wanted to make his impression.

The 24-year-old out-half never got enough of a chance to do himself justice in what turned out to be an injury-ravaged campaign last season.

Almost exactly a year ago Holland had the best opportunity to prove that he could mix it with Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan in the battle for the No 10 jersey. It was his first start in the Pro12 and Munster coach Anthony Foley picked him as part of a strong starting 15 to face Zebre.

All signs pointed towards a comfortable Munster win, with the ideal foundation for Holland to show he could lead an exciting and experienced backline.

The attack clicked: Ireland international Simon Zebo notched a hat-trick from a team tally of five in all in a 31-5 win at Thomond Park.

But Hanrahan was the man who kicked the conversions as first-choice choice Holland limped off after 20 minutes. It was a tough outing for the Togher native.

"It was my first start and it wasn't one of the games where it was an A team either. Paulie (O'Connell) and Conor Murray were playing, and Felix Jones was at full-back. So it was a strong team," says Holland.

"You would target that as an opportunity to drive on. I didn't think I would get my chance in such a strong team.

"But I remember I took an inside ball off Denis Hurley, and their No 8 hit me on top of the shoulder - it was the first ball I took. The first few minutes were nerve-wracking trying to run the team properly for the first time. And then having to go off when I was starting to enjoy it, it was disappointing.

"I was lucky it wasn't as bad an injury, but it was a big blow to my chances," he says.

Holland has made four senior appearances, but his inaugural start hadn't gone to plan and such is the fickle nature of the sport.

However, he kept his head down and gritted it out with the Munster 'A' side, in the B&I Cup. But disaster struck again and this time it was more serious. The Cork Con clubman lined out for Mick O'Driscoll's side as they hosted Nottingham at his local Temple Hill. At the start of the second half a torn hamstring ended his season.

"It happened in a ruck - which I will avoid the next time," he jokes. "I was trying to get a ball. I probably haven't practised that technique enough compared to the other lads.

"A prop just clattered into me when he was clearing me out, and my hamstring went. I have been rehabbing since then.

"I thought I would be part of pre-season but just the way the injury panned out, I had to sit that out mostly."


But things got worse for Holland when he picked up tendonitis as the tendons began to re-attach, and the sense of the unknown makes it even harder to comprehend.

"Mondays and Thursdays are high-volume days in strength and conditioning. So there is a lot of gym sessions going on and a lot of indoor stuff.

"So that suited me because I could go in and about the squad and feel half-normal, because the lads were all doing the same thing.

"Then the other days they would be on the pitch and I would be nearly on my own, with just a few others.

"That's why I enjoyed Mondays and Thursdays. I was in and around the squad for a lot of it and it helped my mentality."

It's been a long year for Holland but the contract extension he secured in January was a massive weight off his shoulders.

It meant he could focus on getting back fit, while he knew the Munster coaching staff had full faith in his return.

The tendonitis is the stumbling block, however, and as Bill Johnston emerges as the next raw talent at fly-half, the competition has never been as great.

As well as incumbent Ian Keatley, Tyler Bleyendaal's timely return puts another roadblock in Holland's way, but he wants to focus on what he can offer to the province, when he does get back.

"It is great for the younger lads like Bill, they got good opportunities in the pre-season games.

"That was my role last year, it gives you a good grounding going forward. If you perform well, you will get the chances.

"The coaches know what you can do, they don't cover your position with someone else who is just covering a position they are not used to.

"But watching on, it is tough. With Tyler coming into the squad as well. You feel somewhat jealous of the lads.

"Pre-season wouldn't get to you as much because you are not missing out on game-time. And the minute the pre-season games start up you feel the opportunities are being lost already.

"There is always competition but, there is lads really stepping up now. Rory Scannell and Dave Johnston and people like are fitting into positions seamlessly while the World Cup squad are away.

"So hopefully when I do get back, sooner rather than later, I will get a bit of game-time to show what I can offer.

"When you are out that long you need to figure out what you can do. I can't wait to get back and prove it to myself more than anyone."

Irish Independent

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