Wednesday 21 March 2018

'They're winning Grand Slams and you're in f***ing Rotherham': Billy Holland's journey from Munster A to the Ireland team

Munster lock proud to follow in father's footsteps as 'stubborn-ness' finally pays off

Billy Holland, who will make his Ireland debut against Canada tomorrow, pictured at Carton House yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Billy Holland, who will make his Ireland debut against Canada tomorrow, pictured at Carton House yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Billy Holland celebrates alongside the Ireland squad after last week’s victory over New Zealand. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

It's not that long ago that Billy Holland was facing a decision that an increasing number of young Irish players are having to deal with: stay at your club and fight for your place, or take up a contract offer from abroad.

He chose to stay but with the likes of Paul O'Connell, Donncha O'Callaghan, Mick O'Driscoll and Donnacha Ryan all ahead of him in the Munster pecking order, you can understand his reasoning for keeping his options open.

It has required a huge amount of patience but having been a standout player for Munster in recent years, Holland has been rewarded by being handed his Ireland debut against Canada.


There were times when Holland had thought his dream of following in his father's footsteps had gone but tomorrow he gets the chance to fulfil a lifelong ambition.

His father Jerry was capped three times by Ireland in the 1980s before becoming a key figure in Munster. Holland's family is steeped in rugby history: his grandfather Redmond was once a Munster selector.

"It is a huge honour for my family," Holland enthuses. "My mother is going mental! I am delighted, I am excited but she is going mental.

"My father was on a tour of South Africa which he had to quit his job for and because of apartheid there was a lot of controversy over whether the Irish team should go or not.

"He was recently married and quit his job - I don't think the mother was too happy about it. He was just married and headed off for two or three months to South Africa."

Holland has taken a longer route but he starts tomorrow on merit - Joe Schmidt has been suitably impressed by what he has seen since he came into camp.

"One of the ways Billy leads well is that he leads himself. He looks after himself and makes sure he's prepared," Schmidt explains.

"That's contagious in a group. So sometimes it's not that you're designated to lead, or that you're even intending to lead, it's that by demonstrating the right behaviours yourself, other people follow you.

"That's something that Billy's been doing in Munster. He's probably not a massive talker amongst the group, he's a doer.

"That's one of the opportunities that awaits all these guys this weekend, Billy included but the younger guys as well.

"Here is an opportunity, and we've got confidence that you can deliver at this level. You need to get out there and demonstrate that."

It's easy to forget that Holland made his Munster debut for Munster way back in 2007. He began his career playing with the late Anthony Foley and he says that as well as the quality locks he learnt from, Foley also had a huge impact on his career.

"You call it patience, I would call it stubbornness," the Cork native smiles. "I've been behind Paulie, Micko, Donners O'Callaghan, Donners Ryan at times.

"But I've learned a huge amount off them over the years. If you are training with these lads week-in, week-out and you aren't learning something and getting better, you're in the wrong game.

"Look, I was delighted to hear my name called out by Joe the other day. As you said, I've been at it quite a while. I've been hacking away for about 10 years now at this stage.

"A couple of years back you would be thinking about it quite a lot but then you realise, as you get little bit older that until you are starting for Munster, and you're starting regularly and performing, you're never going to be up here (in Ireland camp) and you're never going to get an opportunity.

"Unless your pack is going well your team won't go well and last year our pack didn't show up a whole lot. A huge amount of it is from earlier in the season.


"Axel was just coaching us (this season). He was able to get back to coaching and not having to deal with media and contracts. He was able to coach all of us on a one-to-one basis every day and that definitely has had a massive impact.

"Yes Rassie (Erasmus) has brought in a few things and fine-tuned some things that maybe helped Axel go in a certain direction but I would put it (improvements) down to Axel having more time with us forwards."

While there have been some tough times along the way, Holland has never lost sight of his ultimate goal.

His patience or "stubbornness" as he likes to call it has been crucial because as he casts his mind back to just a couple of years ago, his career could have gone down an altogether different path.

"I was thinking of going to a different club across the water and I was tossing a coin," he recalls.

"I tossed the coin 50 times and it ended up something like 26-24 against Munster. I was just like 'this is mad' and I just said 'I'm going to give it another two years'. It's something that would drive you a little bit mental when you are younger.

"I played U-20s with Seanie O'Brien, Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney - all these lads. They're off winning Grand Slams and you're off in f***ing Rotherham or some dive like that playing 'A' rugby.

"It makes you stronger. It makes you mentally strong. You either sink or swim and look, it can go either way. I stuck at it, I was stubborn, put the foot down and kept training hard - kept working on my game.

"I'm getting an opportunity now to make my debut so I'm happy."

Holland will partner Ultan Dillane in the second-row and will lead the lineout against the Canadians at the Aviva. Like the other 14 starting players, Schmidt has urged Holland to seize his opportunity.

"I'm not here for one cap," Holland insists. "You look at fellas like Mike McCarthy and Nathan White. They came in later in their careers and had multiple caps and contributed massively.

"To quote Donncha O'Callaghan: your age is just a number. I look after my body well. It feels good so you just keep going as long as you can."

At 31, time is still on his side to win more caps but regardless of whether he does or not, tomorrow will be a proud day for the Holland family,

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport