Friday 24 January 2020

'We are on the cusp of doing something special'

Friday Focus: Billy Holland

Billy Holland applauds home supporters. Photo: Sportsfile
Billy Holland applauds home supporters. Photo: Sportsfile

From 1,903 players in 1,359 games no one was able to match Billy Holland in the last decade. His 117 victories in a Munster shirt saw him top the PRO14 standings.

But after a week off, where he missed the disappointing defeat at the hands of interprovincial rivals Ulster, his and Munster's attentions turn back to the Champions Cup this weekend.

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It doesn't get much bigger than a trip to Paris to face Racing 92 in the penultimate round of this season's competition, and Munster will be desperate to bounce back after their 38-17 loss at Kingspan Stadium.

"It is a very important time of the year, in terms of the season," says Holland. "You can very quickly find yourself in a great position or having fallen off a little bit.

With team-mate Chris Cloete tackling Leinster's Josh Murphy. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
With team-mate Chris Cloete tackling Leinster's Josh Murphy. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

"It doesn't get any easier either. It is an extra challenge but that is what we enjoy as players."

Tadhg Beirne's unfortunate fractured ankle and Fineen Wycherley's failed head injury assessment last weekend in Belfast mean Munster head coach Johann van Graan is short of numbers in the second-row, but on a weekend where experience is essential, Holland was always likely to get the call.

Munster have produced plenty of world-class second-row operators since 2007-'08, with Paul O'Connell, Donncha O'Callaghan and Donnacha Ryan all performing heroics at international level.

But Holland is the only constant, having made three league appearances in his debut season 13 years ago. He actually scored a try that season, one of three in his professional career so far.

Between the league and Europe, Holland has played 220 times for Munster and he has worked under Declan Kidney, Tony McGahan, Rob Penney, Anthony Foley and Rassie Erasmus before Van Graan took the role as head coach in 2017-'18.

Holland has been a huge asset during a period of transition, where Munster still managed to reach Champions Cup and PRO14 semi-finals with new faces aplenty throughout their squad.

This year South Africa native Jean Kleyn has pushed on and become a fully-fledged Ireland international, banking some valuable minutes at the Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Partnership

Beirne was also used by Joe Schmidt in Japan, and although the World Cup didn't go according to plan, they looked set to form the second-row partnership for Munster in the big European fixtures this time around.

But Holland continues to make himself a valuable option for Van Graan, with his rugby brain and lineout prowess vital to everything Munster do in 2019-'20. He is widely admired for his diligence and study of opponents' set-piece operations.

Wycherley's swift rise through the ranks has presented Holland with more competition alongside Darren O'Shea and Seán O'Connor. But Wycherley is also someone to help nurture and grow into an international lock of the future.

Holland's workmanlike appeal is a perfect fit for a Munster jersey, and he can definitely count himself unlucky not to have featured more under Schmidt too.

His sole game for his country came in the 2016-'17 autumn internationals, when Holland played all 80 minutes in the 52-21 victory over Canada, but it wasn't enough to earn another cap in green. An ambitious player, he is unlikely to ever end his hopes of another call-up, but certainly that experience helped shape him into an even better player for his province.

In all, Holland has played 84 times for Munster since his one Irish cap and now all that's left is for that coveted piece of silverware to land in his direction now.

At 34, he is in the twilight years of professional rugby career, but plenty of locks have defied the odds in recent years - former All Black Brad Thorn came out of retirement when he was 41.

Nevertheless, with players like Kleyn, Beirne, O'Shea and O'Connor for competition, alongside the youthful of exuberance of Wycherley in the first team, Holland won't be afforded any easy avenues into the starting 15 from here on out.

Thomas Ahern is another likely challenger from the academy, so there is no doubt that Holland will need to keep proving himself if he wants to stay on the right side of selections in the coming seasons.

But with his astonishing record and loyalty to the club there's no doubting that the classy second-row won't fear the fight. And Van Graan won't stop giving him his chances while the injuries stay away and his performance levels continue at the current rate.

Meanwhile, Racing 92 are still in the reckoning at the right end of the standings in the Top 14 after a classy 27-19 victory over Clermont last weekend.

But their hopes of winning a first Champions Cup are still very much alive as they lie six points clear of Munster at the top of the Pool 4 standings.

A mammoth task awaits Holland and his team-mates when they go to the Defense Arena on Sunday but it is one they will thrive on.

Appetite

Having a few familiar faces opposite them will surely whet the appetite further, and even if Simon Zebo doesn't make the cut due to a potential injury, it's likely that Holland and Ryan will do battle in the second-row again.

A win for Munster can help turn their season around and Holland knows there is limitless potential.

"We have played some fantastic rugby and we are growing as a team," he says.

"There have been one or two mistakes, a bit of naivety, so there has been a massive sense of disappointment.

"But we are on the cusp of doing something special and we still have a bit of learning to go. We are trying to take the positives out of it as well."

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