Billy Holland laughs heartily at suggestions he might be approaching the veteran stage of a long and distinguished career.
Guinness PRO14 - Zebre v Munster
Sunday: Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, 1.30pm
Referee: Lloyd Linton
TV: Sky Sports
Betting: Zebre 9/2, Munster 1/7, Draw 25/1
He quickly points to the very relevant fact that he has played every single minute of Munster’s 10 matches so far this season and been a tower of strength every inch of the way. And now feeling considerably revitalised after a very welcome week away from the grind, he is looking forward to even greater things as the team’s season moves relentlessly towards serious business.
“I enjoyed our recent break massively,” he says. “I went over and visited Donnacha Ryan (in Paris) and a few other friends in different places and it was really enjoyable to get away and freshen up.
“I had played 10 matches in a row. I started from the Worcester game through to the Dragons with no weekend off, 10 games over 10 weeks with no yellow card and, more importantly, without an injury. It’s a great place for me to be in because I love it although by the end of it you’re absolutely exhausted.
“Am I a veteran? It’s all comparative but look, I am the oldest fellow in the squad at the sprightly young age of 32. I am probably the youngest oldest guy who has been around for the past couple of years. Donnacha Ryan last year was the oldest at 33. Before that, you’d have had BJ Botha, Donncha O’Callaghan, Rog all these fellas, always one in the mid-30s.”
Before Munster kicked a ball in anger this season, they were aware that head coach Rassie Erasmus would be leaving in mid-season and learned later still that he would be replaced by another South African,
Johann van Graan. Holland’s calm and realistic reading of that potentially fraught transition is fascinating.
“We sat down at the start of the year as a senior player group and decided that you could look at it as an opportunity or have a load of excuses if things went wrong.
“We looked at it as the former and Fla and Felix (assistant coaches Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones) were instrumental in it, showing that we could drain as much knowledge from Rassie and Jacques as you could in their remaining couple of months. And then you’re getting a new coach in with a new point of view and you’re going to get a lot of knowledge out of him as well.
“If there was ever going to be any trouble, I think it would have been from the point of when Rassie decided to go to when he left and guys kinda throwing the toys out of the pram and thinking he’s not picking me because he doesn’t like me as a person, that it’s a personal thing. That if we lost a game, they’d kinda go, shure, his mind is already in South Africa. There was absolutely none of that.
“Johann isn’t coming in to change anything at the start. Even this week, Felix and Fla are running things and Johann is just observing. There will be no difficulties. The most difficult part has passed, in my opinion. I hope we are sitting here in two months time and saying the same thing. We know what we’re trying to do. What we’ve been doing so far has been working even if we have slipped up a few times but I think we have progressed from last year, that we are a better team than last year and Johann is going to come in and look at what we are doing over the next month or so, tweak a few things.
“When you have a new coach coming in, you cast an eye on what his team has been doing. The way South Africa run the lineout is slightly different to ours and both work so I think we’ll be able to put bits and pieces from both sides together and come to something that is hopefully better than both. But that’s not going to happen immediately”.
Over the years, a game against Zebre (Munster’s opponents in Parma on Sunday) was regarded as an easy four points but that’s no longer the case, not least due to the skilful coaching of the Italian side by Michael Bradley, Holland’s fellow Corkman and close family friend.
“I remember as a youngster caddying for my old fella and Micky Bradley when they were out golfing”, says Billy. “He knows plenty about Munster. There’s a big incentive for him in this game and he’ll have them in the right place.”
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