By Charlie Mulqueen
Pulling on the red jersey of Munster has become second nature for Billy Holland.
Yet it’s an honour that he never takes from granted.
Holland, 33 this month, is itching now for another season where his versatility as a second-row forward and number six make him an invaluable member of Johann van Graan’s squad. The 6ft 3inch, 17½-stone Cork Con man can’t wait for Saturday’s visit of the South African Cheetahs to Thomond Park and the commencement of a new campaign.
Though the colour of the jersey may be the same, the appliance of science in terms of preparation is unrecognisable from when Holland began his provincal adventure.
“It’s phenomenal how the preparation for the new season has changed. It’s hard to describe, it’s so scientific. They get data from our GPS and it allows them to monitor what we’re doing. They don’t flog you until you’re broken anymore. The idea with GPS is that they can learn whether to pull back or learn to push forward. GPS is factual. It tells you exactly what you do in a rugby match. Our sessions are very tough but you know there’s science behind them.”
When people observe modern-day professional outfits go through their training programmes, especially at the beginning of a season, they inevitably wince at the apparent severity of it all.
Holland has no complaints.
“Gone are the days when you do nothing for four weeks,” he explains of a professional player’s summer holidays. “You might get through your fitness test on day one but you’d fall apart straight afterwards otherwise. I would take two weeks of absolute rest and then tip away for another two weeks.
The visit of the Cheetahs on Saturday coming on the back of last Friday’s “friendly” 12-0 defeat by Exeter means that Munster will have a far-from-gentle start to the new campaign.
“The Cheetahs are a very physical pack and their backs are so elusive,” said Holland.
“They have a lot of very good, skilful individual players and you don’t know what they’re going to do. There are one or two who are tiny and who run at you and you’d prefer a guy of 6 ft 10ins and 150kgs because they’re easier to tackle. They have a good scrum, good maul, good set piece and backs who will run riot if you kick loose ball to them.
“When we first played them last season, they weren’t used to European rugby. But they got to PRO14 play-offs so they certainly learned as the season went on as to what was more suitable to their style. Certainly playing them at this time of year with a dry ball and firm grounds will suit them more than, say, going to Dragons in January in the mud and the rain.”
Holland’s task of retaining his place in the 23-man squad on the biggest days in Europe and the PRO14 has not been eased by the arrival of some notable second row and back-row signings, most notably the equally versatile Tadgh Beirne.
But Holland has welcomed the former Scarlets man with open arms.
“To really compete, you need 30 top-class players with two guys at least for each position. Tadgh certainly showed what he could so last season. Competition is so important, there are now five second-rows going to compete for two positions and one on the bench. I think he is going to bring in great ball skills. You have seen what he can do on the poach, maybe I’ll learn some things off him and maybe he’ll learn a few things off me in terms of the lineout. Maybe that’s something he hasn’t developed in his game yet and that’s something I’ll be expected to help him with. It’s exciting to play with him and to compete with him for positions and hopefully making us all play better.”