BILLY HOLLAND was faced with a crucial decision a few weeks ago. Leave Munster and maybe find an easier route to regular first team football elsewhere or stay and fight for a place.
He’s honest enough to admit that he looked around. That he had a good look at what was out there, weighed up the pros and cons and perhaps even wrestled with the decision.
Ultimately he backed himself and signed a new two-year contract that will take him to 28 years of age.
Tomorrow he leads out Munster’s A side for their B&I Cup final in Musgrave Park. It’s not an honour he takes lightly – “anytime you lead a team in red is special” – but he does hope it’s for the last time.
Holland has a want in him and that want is a place in the senior side. It’s what ultimately drives him.
Not so long ago James Coughlan was where Holland is now, playing regularly and quite well with the A side – “now he’s one of the first names on the senior team list,” – and his performances with the A side went a ways to helping him break through.
And only this season did Holland’s house-mate Donnacha Ryan start a Heineken Cup game for the first time in a career that has already included a Heineken Cup final win (2008) and a World Cup (2011).
Holland’s covetous. Captaining the A side is, he desperately hopes, a means to an end.
“The A games are usually on the same weekend as the Heineken Cup. So would I rather be preparing to play in the Heineken Cup or travelling to Tralee to play Ayr in the B&I Cup?
“That’s a no-brainer. That’s the aim of everyone playing in the A side. We all want to be playing with the senior side regularly.”
Holland has almost 50 Munster caps to his credit already but it’s not nearly enough for a player who has come up through the ranks with the province – four years in the Academy, one year on a Development contract and now in his third year as a senior pro.
Interestingly, enough he also backed himself way back when, spending his first year in the Academy in an unpaid trial capacity.
That determination and belief in his ability and his perseverance has already seen him scale heights in his career some of his more seasoned colleagues can only envy.
In 2010 he was one of Munster’s stand-out performers in their 15-9 win over Australia, providing leadership and grunt in the second-row alongside Ian Nagle – “His leadership alongside Ian that night was immense,” said team captain James Coughlan at the time – and he also played against New Zealand in 2008, replacing Denis Leamy after 24 minutes.
“I don’t want those games to be the highlights of my career,” said Holland this week.
“I want to be playing in the Heineken Cup and the Rabo on a regular basis. I want to win a Heineken Cup with Munster.
“That’s what drives me. That’s what ultimately convinced me to stay here. I know I have the ability to play at every level for Munster and am determined to make that breakthrough.
“In these things you need a bit of luck and you need to be in the right environment – and Munster certainly provides the right environment.
“And you need to work hard. It’s 90% to 95% hard work to play at that level. Skill only gets you so far. I’ve played with and against fellas who haven’t made it and the difference is probably hard work.”
And just so there’s no danger of that work ethic slackening off (not very likely), Holland has set himself a deadline – two years.
“I love playing for Munster but I have set myself the target of two years to give it absolutely everything (like I have done up to now) and if it hasn’t worked out by then I’ll reassess my situation.”
Part of the appeal of Holland is his ability to play in the second row as well as at his preferred blindside role – “if you perform well as a six you can transfer those qualities to playing at four too” – and tomorrow night he’ll be leading from the blindside role as captain.
“There’s a trophy to be won in the game, one that Munster have never won. That’s huge motivation in its own right. We have come through a tough group and had a great win over Leinster in the semi-final. Now we want to win the thing outright. That’s the aim.
“We lost in the final two years ago, were poor last year and Munster want silverware. We need to win trophies and from the oldest to the youngest in the squad we are desperate to win this on Friday night.
“Finals are different ball games. Fellas would have learned that two years ago. You can’t just rock up like any other day and win.
“It’s how you build up through the week and then perform on the Friday evening.”
And as well as the lure of a winner’s medal on Friday evening there’s also the added motivation that a big performance by someone tomorrow night could lead to bigger things.
“There are senior games left. There’s the Ulster game and the semi-final and there are places to be won on the senior team if you’re good enough.
“The reality is that between the As and the senior side there’s two trophies there to be won.
“We will be very disappointed if we don’t have the two of them come the end of May,” he added.