Once Anthony Foley made his biggest selection gamble of the season and picked Johnny Holland ahead of Ian Keatley to face Leinster, the rookie fly-half was always going to be a focal point in this heavyweight interprovincial battle.
And while he came out on the losing side and was even eclipsed by his more experienced and accomplished opposite number Johnny Sexton, the questions being asked of Foley were not critical of Holland but why the coach had not kept the young play-maker on the field longer at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday night.
Holland, 24, was called ashore after just 57 minutes in Dublin but it was long enough for the Cork man (in only his eighth senior start for Munster) to indicate that there could be a homegrown out-half finally able to become a worthy successor to Ronan O’Gara in the red number 10 jersey. Injured academy fly-half Bill Johnston may have something to say about that down the line but on Saturday at the Aviva, Munster’s future was in Holland’s hands.
“I said to him before the match that this was the standard where you want to show yourself and he played an unbelievable game,” Munster skipper CJ Stander said of his fly-half. “There is competition in that spot. We have two great 10s: an international 10 on the bench and coming on so Johnny stepped up and scored a try. That’s good. He is a youngster stepping up and playing unbelievable rugby. I see good things for him for the future.”
Having been gifted a straightforward nerve-settler of a penalty kick from in front of the posts to open the scoring in the 13th minute, the left-footed Holland built on his assured start in front of more than 43,000 supporters, finding touch with intelligence and giving enough hangtime on his Garryowens to make them contestable.
Sexton was warming to his task also but when the Ireland and Lions number 10 scored the first of his three penalties, Holland nudged Munster back in front, this time from longer range.
He even matched Sexton’s first-half try with a score of his own to push the visitors back in front after the break, finishing off a good period of pressure inside the Leinster 22 with a neat show-and-go to make space for a dive over the line, finishing his work with an excellent conversion from the left touchline.
There were mis-steps. That was only natural, Holland sending a restart out on the full after Sexton’s try and spilling in contact not long after his own five-pointer, a mistake, perhaps, too far.
Moments later, Foley sent on the more experienced Keatley to try and break the 13-13 deadlock and deliver, he hoped, valuable points in the chase for the Pro12 play-offs.
Alas for both Munster and Keatley, the first chance to make an impression came quickly and it was a difficult first kick, the long-range penalty drifting across the posts. Sadly for Keatley it only threw Holland’s efforts into an even better light, though Foley had no regrets about making the switch when he did.
“He was doing very well,” the Munster boss said of Holland, “around (57) minutes into the game we’ve a very experienced international out-half on the bench that has led us for the vast majority of the season. With a game as tight as that you don’t want to be putting on your 10 with about five or 10 minutes to go. You want to be making that change a bit earlier. And Keats got us into a position to win the game.
“Johnny had done really well up to that point. He’s a very promising up and coming player. He’s at the start of his career I’d imagine, and we’ve a very experienced 10 on the bench and it was important we gave him an opportunity to get into the game and put us in a position to win it, which he did. Unfortunately we didn’t win it.” Nevertheless, Keatley could already be pencilled in for Munster’s next test, a challenging trip to Connacht in a fortnight.
Holland has proved his worth and vindicated Foley’s gamble but it seems the head coach will judge his fly-halves on a horses for courses basis.
“We’ll see what way it goes. We’re up in the Sportsground the next day, there is a weather condition issue up there and Ian played with Connacht for a number of seasons and would be well in tune with the Sportsground.
“That’s a decision we don’t have to make today or tomorrow so we’ll look at what we need to go up against, against Connacht, and see where we go from there.”
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