Billy Holland chuckles when it’s put to him his first senior Ireland cap, against Canada tomorrow, is a reward for patience.
Stubbornness, he prefers to call it.
Either way, it’s been a long time coming. How long? Well, look at it this way: Holland played U21 for Ireland. That grade was scrapped and replaced by the U20s as far back as 2008. He’s 31 now and he’s been “hacking away” for 10 years by now.
His own words.
Joe Schmidt put his journey into further perspective when he reminded everyone of the players ahead of him in the second row queue at Munster for so long. Paulie, Donners, Mick O’Driscoll, Donnacha Ryan. That’s a tough school and graduation was a long time coming.
Holland always understood the benefits of lingering in those giant shadows.You couldn’t help but learn in that environment but it tested that stubborn streak as he sat stuck in neutral while his peers purred confidently through the gears.
“Yeah. A couple of years back I was thinking of going to a different club across the water and I was tossing a coin. I tossed the coin 50 times and it ended up something like 26-24 against Munster. I was just like: ‘this is mad’ and I just said ‘I’m going to give it another two years’.
“It’s something that would drive you a little bit mental when you are younger.
“You see guys I played (underage) with - Seanie O’Brien, Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney. All these lads. They’re off winning Grand Slams and you’re off in f***ing Rotherham or some dive like that playing ‘A’ rugby.
“It makes you stronger. You either sink or swim and, look, it can go either way. I stuck at it. I was stubborn, put the foot down and kept training hard. Kept working on my game.”
What he realised was it had to be a case of ‘Munster first’.
International ambitions were stored away until he could secure a regular place with the province and, not just that, but play to a certain level as well. Eventually, the appearance figures crept up. A first European start was earned in 2012/13 and he was named captain for the first time last March.
That in itself was progress of which he could be proud. His grandfather Redmond Holland was a Munster selector, his dad Jerry - a lock, just like his son - played for the province and held a dizzying array of posts with them after he hung up his boots.
Ireland was another step again. Joe Schmidt first spotted Holland when he gave an outstanding display against Australia for Munster back in 2010 but he had to serve his time with Emerging Ireland, facing the might of sides such as Russia and Emerging Italy on two summer tours to Tbilisi and Bucharest.
“Play rugby, see the world, as they say.” He can joke, but it paid off.
“You are going in and showing a capacity to learn the Irish calls and fit into an Irish system. Joe can see can a guy slot in or not. It would have been the way with Ireland ‘A’ over the years, of the Wolfhounds or whatever. It’s an opportunity for guys to showcase themselves.
“I can’t remember where the last one was but I ended up with a broken ankle from it, so I wasn’t too best pleased with that, but it certainly does give guys an opportunity to show that they can pick up on a new system within a week and play three games in nine days.”
Schmidt mentioned that ability to adapt yesterday. It’s a non-negotiable in the Kiwi’s world where attention to detail is prized and Holland insists it isn’t any hardship. Hardship, he pointed out, was his dad deciding to quit his job to tour apartheid-era South Africa in 1981.
Jerry Holland earned two caps on that tour and waited almost five years for his third and last. Billy Holland doesn’t have another five years to wait around. His time is now and the aim is Canada tomorrow should act as a memorable first step rather than a happy ending.
“I’m not here for one cap. You look at fellas like Mike McCarthy and Nathan White: they came in later in their careers and had multiple caps for Ireland and contributed massively. To quote Donncha O’Callaghan: your age is just a number. I look after my body well.
“It feels good so you just keep going as long as you can.”
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