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'We will play the way Axel would have wanted us to' - Munster's Billy Holland on Paris return


Memories of Anthony Foley have come flooding back to Billy Holland. Photo: Sportsfile

Memories of Anthony Foley have come flooding back to Billy Holland. Photo: Sportsfile


Memories of Anthony Foley have come flooding back to Billy Holland. Photo: Sportsfile

Christmas is always short and sweet as a professional rugby player, but turning into the New Year as Pro12 leaders on the back of two inter-pro wins was a great sign-off to 2016.

It's wasn't all lineout prep and gym sessions though; we got to enjoy two days off with our families. On Christmas Eve I got to meet up with a lot of my friends from the 'real world' as they call it!

Many of them are scattered all around the globe, and I really only get to meet them once a year, even if it is just for a sparkling water as they enjoy something a little stronger! My future mother-in-law cooked a lovely meal that night and I was back home then with my family for Christmas Day where my own mother cooked up my favourite meal of the year, as always!

You get asked a lot: 'What's it like not being able to enjoy Christmas Day', and while the Leinster game on St Stephen's Day and a five-day turnaround to Connacht are never far from your thoughts, you can still enjoy it all spending time with family and friends. The sacrifices you make over Christmas are small in comparison to the rewards of getting to play in front of a record crowd in Thomond Park.

Inter-pros and European games are the toughest, most intense tests you get, so to park the Pro12 for the month of January like we did is pretty satisfying.

Heading back down the road to Limerick with nine points from a possible ten, we were very happy with our lot. Connacht like to play an expansive game of rugby, but the shocking conditions meant they had to change that a little bit. In those conditions it is nearly impossible to play that way.

We felt defence would win the game and as it turned out it did. It was very rewarding. The weather helped us, but we had worked hard in our preparations to make sure that conditions would not be key.

Looking back, I thought Keats was brilliant for us. He had been sick for the previous week or so and only trained once before the Connacht game. It was a credit to him to get out there and play like he did.

He knew his surroundings well, but to kick that way - particularly that one in the second half from the right, into the wind - was outstanding. He'll be happy with his all-round game too though: his restart at the end of the game was fantastic; he kicked well from hand; and was in the thick of the defensive effort at the death too.

Along with Duncan Williams and the other backs, they controlled the game really well for us.

Playing three Champions Cup games in three consecutive weekends will be a new experience for us and the first of them away to Racing 92 tomorrow will be a real challenge. There are two sides to this game: the job we have to do as professional rugby players; and the emotional aspect of returning to play the last game we had prepared for with Axel. It's going to bring back a lot of memories of a really difficult time.

There isn't a day that goes by that we don't think of Axel. He has influenced so many of us in the squad, coaching lads from Munster U-20s to Munster 'A's and then on to the senior squad. He was quite a stubborn man, and I like to think he instilled a lot of his grit and determination in many of the current players. We've all had coaches that tell you what you want to hear, whether you're being selected or dropped, but Axel always told you the truth. His honesty was always for the long-term benefit of the squad and the individual.

Just walking around the training centre, seeing his office, out on the pitch, at home - everything we do reminds us of Axel. Going back to Paris will be particularly poignant and to counteract that we need to be very focused on performing at our best.

We've all asked ourselves how would Axel have dealt with it? He would have focused during the week in getting the technical details of our game right; he would have said we need to control our emotions and forget about our nerves. Our aim is to play the way he wanted us to play. Rassie, Jacques, Felix and Jerry, along with the rest of the backroom staff, have worked tirelessly to facilitate us, the players, in trying to achieve this.

This week I have been thinking a bit about our last trip to Paris, and I sat beside Axel on the flight over and he was in fantastic form and really looking forward to playing the reigning Top 14 champions. I hope that is of some comfort to Olive and the boys to know how happy and excited he was to take on one of the giants of European rugby in their own back yard. The man loved nothing more than a challenge like that.

Emotion and memories will lurk behind every corner this weekend, but we have to focus on the job. Racing supporters are opening their homes up to Munster supporters to stay in for this game in Paris and this is another example of the rugby community pulling together in the most incredible of ways.

From Leinster wearing their red No 8 T-shirts in their warm-ups, to Ulster supporters singing the 'Fields of Athenry' and coming into our dressing room to share a beer with us after we beat them in Ravenhill, the gestures clubs, supporters and players have made in Axel's memory have been truly heartwarming.

In many ways this weekend is more than a game, but in the end it's only a game too. Yes, you want to win every single game, but if we have learned anything this season, it's sport and there are for more important things in life.

Irish Independent