Sinead Kissane: 'From 'silent leader' to vocal captain to impact sub, classy Holland fills all roles for Munster'
It's never a good look for a referee when the captain of a team comes across as the more authoritative figure in a disciplinary situation. So it was in Treviso last Friday night when referee Ben Whitehouse gave a yellow card to Benetton centre Tommaso Benvenuti for a red-card tackle on Stephen Archer. The Munster captain for the game felt this was a decision worth pursuing.
"Can I ask one simple question - how is that not a red card?" Billy Holland asked Whitehouse with the delicious absence of pandering.
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"Because it's not, it's not, there's no force, it's a..." Whitehouse trailed off.
"Can I ask a question about the rule-book?" Holland interjected, doing a good impression of an interviewer worth his salt with a pointed follow-up question.
"It's a medium force and it's deemed to be a yellow card, and that's what it is," Whitehouse replied.
On Wednesday a disciplinary committee agreed with Holland's assessment of the tackle: it was a red-card offence. The above might appear a minor conversation in the footnote of a small game in Munster's season. But it wasn't. It comes with an attitude that everything is worth chasing.
Holland's season has been made up of a series of moments that have helped shape the big outcomes for Munster. When he replaced the injured Tadhg Beirne in the 67th minute of their Champions Cup pool game against Exeter at Thomond Park in January, Exeter were rubbing their hands at the prospect of a line-out metres from Munster's tryline.
The scoreline was a skin-tight 7-6 to Exeter. When Peter O'Mahony leapt up to try and steal the line-out the ball flew over his head, but Holland was back up in the second pod.
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Holland rose and was lifted with such balletic effect that the wonder of how he did it almost got lost in the magnitude of what he did. He robbed the line-out, Munster got a penalty and yes, this is how you make a grand entrance into a game.
When I asked O'Mahony this week about the influence of Holland, his voice almost lowered into a quasi-reverential tone. "Billy's been very important to us the last couple of years - line-out wise particularly, he's had a huge mantle to take on there. The amount of video analysis he does is above and beyond the call," O'Mahony said.
Last season Holland (who turns 34 in August) started and played every minute of Munster's eight European games - except for the round six pool game against Castres, when he came off after 61 minutes.
When a big name joins a team it can be easy to forget the story of the fall-guy. With the addition of the influential Beirne, Holland has had to make do with a place on the bench for Europe, except for the back-to-back pool games against Castres in December when he started.
Despite his game-time being cut, Holland has been wholly effective. In the 76th minute of their quarter-final win over Edinburgh last month, Holland disrupted Edinburgh's throw, which led to a scrum for Munster. Again, in a pivotal moment, Holland reached higher than anyone else.
Roy Keane would like his fellow Corkman's attitude. Like the postman delivering the post, pilfering balls is what Holland expects of himself.
"As a sub you come in and you want to fit in first," Holland said after that win over Edinburgh. "You come on and you do your job and it's my job to try and take the ball off them in the line-out."
"He's a silent leader," was how Munster boss Johann van Graan this week described Holland. "He doesn't say a lot but once he's not there for the training session, for the video session, you're immediately, 'where's Billy?'.
"I joke with him that he's played 250,000 games but he just seems to get better and he's had some incredible moments in the Champions Cup. That offload to Earlsie against Gloucester, that lineout steal against Exeter. The unsung hero is what he does when the internationals aren't here. You just have to see it again on Friday night - the way he performed for 80 minutes, the way he manages the referee, the way he leads his side."
Holland is the most capped Munster player in the current squad. When he comes off the bench against Saracens at the Ricoh Arena today he will play for the 210th time for Munster (Archer is closest to him with 187 caps). Holland made his provincial debut at Irish Independent Park the day after Ireland were beaten by France in the 2007 Rugby World Cup pool game. Yes, that far back.
Holland lined out in a Munster pack that also featured the late Anthony Foley. It was the year between Munster's two Heineken Cup titles (when his father, Jerry, was team manager of Munster) but Holland didn't make his European debut until April 2010.
There's been traffic ahead of him in the likes of Paul O'Connell, Donncha O'Callaghan, Mick O'Driscoll and Donnacha Ryan. But Holland kept up the chase. I asked his dad what the secret is behind his son's longevity.
"I think perseverance and good attitude and being a good pro. He's always maxed his ability," Jerry said. "I'm sure he doesn't like to be seen as an impact sub, he'd prefer to be starting. But yeah, there's been some big moments this year, I'd like to think no different to other years. But we'd be delighted for him that he's doing so well."
In the week leading up to his one and only Ireland cap in November 2006, Holland said: "Just because you know what you want doesn't mean you get it, but you have something to chase."
Maybe it's because he's currently in that role of impact sub, but it seems like Holland has been attacking that chase like never before. The chase for game-time, the chase to taste the Munster glory days that his dad was part of, the chase for a Heineken Champions Cup final day.
That chase resumes today.