After a tumultuous six months in the role of head coach, last weekend was one of pure satisfaction for Jason Holland. It wasn’t just the fact that his Hurricanes had ended Crusaders’ 36-match unbeaten home record in Christchurch.
The true joy was in how they did it.
“We took a bit of flak after we’d lost our first two games,” he explained. “Recently we wanted to make sure we could be nice and composed when the pressure is on us. It stood to us in that second half when we were under the pump and able to take a lot of pressure from them for long periods.”
Holland is a man still held in high regard around Thomond Park. The centre played 102 games for Munster, having arrived from New Zealand with the intention of just playing in the AIL, for Midleton.
After retiring, he returned to the province as backs coach and helped them to the 2008 Heineken Cup success.
Current events have conspired to make that feel like a lifetime ago. Since December he has seen a promotion, the outbreak of a pandemic, the suspension of Super Rugby, a severe salary cut, cancelled trips to Ireland, a new competition, and new laws. Chaos is now normal.
He still fondly recalls his time with the province. In a dressing room that included the likes of Mick Galwey and Peter Clohessy, it would be difficult to forget it. The 47-year old laughs as some colourful memories come flooding back.
“The more important thing was how comfortable the boys were with each other. That dressing room challenged each other. Sure, there was some things that felt amateur in those days. But the overriding thing was the fact we were tight as a group. We challenged each other massively around everything.
“At times things weren’t right off the field but the tightness of that group, they wanted to play for each other and play for the community. That is rare. Trust me. All professional teams these days strive for that, you know? Every coach would love a team that is desperate to do well for their mates, their community. It sounds cheesy but it can drive a team.
“That was a serious environment. It was semi-professional but I still get tingles now when I think about how I felt playing for Munster. I’ve always felt Deccie (Kidney) should get some credit for that.
“You need to make sure you have guys who are desperate to be there. It is not easy to get that when you have nearly 40 guys and you are picking 23. That was different nationalities and personalities, all driven to a team goal.”
In particular, Holland cherishes his time in Midleton. The club was only supposed to be a stopgap. In the absence of an offer from a Super Rugby franchise, the plan was to spend six months in Cork before moving on to the UK with his girlfriend. Yet the atmosphere he found there was infectious. So, he stayed.
“The people of Midleton looked after me and we had some good fun along the way. I figured it out pretty quickly; they wanted to have fun but they needed you to work hard and get results first. That sort of energy grows on you.”
That is not something Holland left behind either.
“It is a mindset. You know, when get to my age and have played in a few countries and coached a few teams, you can look back and say this team had it, this one didn’t. The Munster way is nearly a sense of desperation to do well for the people around you.”
Despite all that has changed, in many ways Holland has remained the same. There is little difference between Wellington’s winter and an Irish summer in Midleton but beyond that, the rugby smarts that defined him as a player have helped him enormously as a coach. It was something that he shared with a select few at Munster.
“We were always interested in the detail, whether that be Rog or Axel. It is not just looking forward and seeing tries scored. It is always about what happened in the phase before. The small details that led to a big outcome.
“Most coaches and players when they are playing just keeping looking at the ball and the outcome.
“There are some of the examples of tries we scored at the weekend. We scored down the edges because of all the small details two or three phases before. It is what we put our emphasis on. I say to my tight five ‘I want you to carry straight and focus on presentation, get a good clean placement.’ In our review on Monday, I won’t show the guy who ran 20 yards and scored a try. I’ll show the little parts that led up to it.”
Last week’s win ensures Super Rugby Aotearoa, New Zealand’s 10-week internal tournament, is shaping up nicely. It unfolds amidst much discussion about new trans-Tasman competition. More regional, less teams, the best playing the best week on week. It sounds great in theory, but Holland worries about practical implications.
“I don’t know how sustainable it is. Look at test match footy. You rarely play four or five games in a row at that intensity.
“I feel like we need to be smart around player welfare. Boys are banged up and knackered.
“Last week was our fourth game in a row, we couldn’t train until Thursday. But yeah, over the last two or three weeks those games have been pretty special, a lot of bite in every single one. All our games are going down to the wire.
“They are awesome to be involved in.”