Munster rising star Johnny Holland may be new to the rough and tumble of top-flight professional rugby but he is wise enough about the way things are done in his native province to understand qualifying for next season’s Champions Cup is not “non-negotiable”.
The 24-year-old steered his team to a vital bonus-point victory over Edinburgh on Friday night at Musgrave Park, his conversion of Francis Saili’s 77th-minute try denying the Scottish side a losing bonus point that would have made Saturday’s 22nd and last round of Guinness Pro12 games an even nervier affair than it already is.
Munster instead head into their final-day showdown with Scarlets at Thomond Park knowing they control their own destiny once more. Victory over the West Wales region, a place above them in the table and chasing a top-four play-off berth, will secure sixth place and guarantee their name goes into the hat for Europe’s top-tier club competition for a 21st consecutive season.
As assured in front of the media as he has been in the Munster 10 jersey since securing his place in it in March on his return from a serious hamstring injury, the fly-half maintained Champions Cup qualification was not a take it or leave it option.
“Absolutely non-negotiable,” Holland said. “Everybody speaks about it for a reason so that’s up to us to go and get it. The win over Edinburgh was the first step to doing it but we have one more to go though. It’s great to be back there (in the top six). That was our aim but we’re not going to take the foot off the gas.”
On a personal level, Holland seems not to be letting up. The Cork Constitution out-half tore his hamstring off the bone in November 2014 playing for Munster A against Nottingham in the B&I Cup and after being sidelined for 16 months he returned for just his fifth Munster senior cap as back up to Ian Keatley in the March 3 home game with Newport Gwent Dragons.
A further appearance off the bench at Cardiff Blues followed in the next fixture on March 18 and earned Holland a start against Zebre the following week. His five conversions from five attempts in a record 47-0 league win over the Italians continued a 100% return from the tee.
It was enough for Anthony Foley to hand him the number 10 jersey for the Aviva Stadium clash with arch rivals Leinster. Holland finished on the losing side but his try-scoring performance was widely praised and he has continued his run of starts at the expense of the Ireland-capped Keatley.
“To be selected for that match was probably a game changer for me,” Holland said of his Leinster start.
“It showed a bit of confidence behind me for a player only coming into the squad. I was massively nervous for it obviously, as you would be, I didn’t expect it to go so well for me personally but we lost and I’d trade that in a heartbeat for the win but I was happy with my performance and it does give you the impetus to drive on.”
Even in trying times for the team, Holland has confirmed his poise with ball in hand and the boot but the 100% kicking return had to end sometime and a missed conversion from the right touchline against Edinburgh brought the run to an end after 15 successful kicks.
“I was so disappointed because I had kicked one from that position already and then I probably lost my way a small bit with the two after that so I was very disappointed with it but I said before the game that anything I could do personally I’d give it all up for sixth spot.”
The Edinburgh win was also noteworthy for Holland’s 80 minutes at the controls.
“I don’t expect to play the full game. I think it’s my 10th game or something and with someone like Keats on the bench, who has a lot of experience at this level, he has something like over 200 games at this level, it’s great for my confidence.”
Holland, whose selection battle will continue this week in advance of Saturday’s finale with Scarlets, said Keatley had been encouragement personified.
“He’s been very supportive. You think fellas are baying for blood in competition for places but he’s been very supportive. At kicking sessions you’d hear ‘well done’ in the background. Even at half-time he was telling me to keep doing what I was doing.
“Sometimes you can be looking over your shoulder and you need to be for a bit of competition, it can be healthy but it needs to be amicable as well and that was one of the games where we all needed to be pulling together.
“There’s definitely no bitterness between the two of us.”
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