Everything revolved around his thumb.
When Jason Holland climbed off the plane in November 1998, his immediate future was clear. A season with Midleton RFC, then the sights of Europe with his girlfriend. Rugby and travel.
“I knew Damon [Ulrich, then Midleton coach] from home,” says Holland. “The plan was to play the season with Midleton and then head off travelling with my girlfriend, now my wife, as she was working in London at the time.
“But a couple of days after I got here I hurt my thumb so badly I couldn’t play for three months.”
Holland’s life could have taken a very different course if his hosts hadn’t decided to back him.
“It was hugely frustrating, because you get somewhere and you’re just dying to play, to earn the respect of the guys you’re joining — and I couldn’t do that. Midleton could have sent me home, and I don’t know just how close they came to doing that, but they didn’t. They stuck by me, they kept me around, and I appreciated it.
“If they hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to stay, so my life might have been very, very different.”
When the thumb was repaired and he made it on to the field Holland’s brainy midfield play soon caught the eye. His plans changed completely when Declan Kidney, then Munster coach, rang him in February 1999 and a provincial contract was put on the table.
Fourteen years later he’s going home, after almost a decade and a half as player and coach with the men in red. In two weeks’ time he’ll be Down Under with Taranaki, packing away a sackload of memories. All the Munster highs and lows, the victories and defeats — Holland was there.
But just as he was present for the harvest, he was around for the sowing of the seeds. Holland had a front-row seat as Munster learned the professional game, bit by bit. Inch by inch.
“We were all learning as we went. Deccie [Kidney] was the key man to be involved at the time, because he had key strengths when it came to dealing with all of that stuff, guys’ mentalities about being professional all the time — those small details. Those details that Deccie focused on proved to be very important.
“You have to remember that we had good players who had come through the amateur era, the likes of Mick Galway, and between him and Declan they helped to bring us through that learning time.
“And it was a learning time. In a lot of ways we were very green — years behind. The first Heineken Cup final against Northampton in 2000, for instance, was a case that where we were professionals but it was a pretty amateurish time.”
In the Munster mythology an emotional team meeting the night before the Northampton game drained so much from the players that they weren’t at the right pitch the next day.
“At the time that meeting was great. We were coming out of it after no-holds-barred honesty and emotion, and at that time we thought it was the best thing — until the next day, when we realised it was maybe too full-on. A perfect example of learning as we went on.”
There were high points as well. Great days.
“People talk about the Miracle Match but for me the big one was the win over Toulouse in 2000 — against a French team in Bordeaux, big crowd, hot day... I thought it was the first time, really, that people thought, ‘the boys are contenders in Europe’.
“That was probably the high point with Munster, it was amazing and sticks in my mind.”
He goes on, though to talk about the East Cork town he made home. Over the years a few outfits in Limerick made approaches to Holland, but he stayed true to Midleton.
“I loved every minute of it there. The first couple of years we won our division, and there was a great set-up.
“Then you had Midleton itself, which is a great town. Far enough out of Cork to escape but close enough to get into the city. A good little spot. The farmer’s market, everything.
“It’s going to be emotional for me to leave, because 80% of my mates are here now. It’ll be tough to leave but we’d always intended to go back to New Zealand.”
There’ll be challenges. His two daughters aren’t just born and raised in Ireland, “they’re Cork kids, with the accents”, asking him what they’re going to do with their Gaeilge down under; he’s told them they’ll be learning Maori instead.
Not surprisingly, he ends as he begins. By talking about Midleton. He’s been coaching them as well as helping out CBC Cork’s schools team.
“It’s a shame the way things have gone. We had great dinner dances. It was a terrific social scene in the club rooms after games, the place would be jammed with people for the night.
“Now that’s changed with the economy going down, you might only have a couple of people having a drink after the game. Obviously that affects the playing side as well, it’s harder to get players and the players that you have, training them is hard because they have to watch their jobs. You can’t argue with that, but in coaching terms it means it’s harder. You end up doing more managing than coaching.
“I hope it turns around for them. They looked after me and I hope I was good to them.”
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