Billy Holland glad he stuck around and got his second wind at Munster

Secondrow won more caps in his 30s after he considered departing in 2014

Billy Holland’s decision to retire at the end of the season is prompted in part by the knowledge that he is liable to see less game time next season but primarily by a desire to spend more time with his family.

This is particularly understandable given Holland and his wife Lanlih Keane went through the heartbreaking experience of losing their first child, Emmeline, at just six months old in May 2019. Matthew, their "gift from Emmeline", turned one on Thursday.

“Watching him taking his first steps at the moment, I am lucky to be able to see that. You don’t want to be missing that because I’m away for a weekend or I’m away at training or what not. Everyone works 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, when you finish playing rugby, so it’s not like I’m just going to be sitting at home.

“But rugby is all-consuming and it dominates family life. My wife has sacrificed many things over the years to allow me to play rugby. You can’t plan ahead, these are all things that professional rugby players deal with, that’s just the way it is. But I have a strong appreciation of wanting to be at home. It is the little things that I take joy out of in my home life.”

Last October, Holland received the Zurich Contribution to Irish Society award after he and Lanlih raised over €600,000 in aid of Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Crumlin and for the children’s ward in Cork University Hospital through their #BraveLikeEmmeline campaign.

“I think what myself and my wife and my family went through was incredibly difficult and that’s putting it mildly, but what we managed to do afterwards with the support of our families and the public is something I’m very, very proud of.”

When Holland does retire he’ll do so as Munster’s second most capped player although he admits he came close to leaving on one particular occasion.

"I got my 100th cap in 2014. I was nearly 30 and I have racked up [another] 140 in my 30s, which is quite unusual. When Rob Penney was leaving I had a sit down with him [in 2014] and he thought it was best for me to move on to greener pastures. I didn't and I'm glad I stayed put.

“I broke my ankle fairly quickly after that and we had a tough season under Axel in his first year (2014-15). I came in and it just went well and it snowballed. It is the same with so many fellas in the squads, throughout all the provinces. Once you get a run of games it became a lot easier to perform well. A huge part of it is confidence.”

Two particularly spine-tingling highlights stand out, even by Thomond Park’s standards. One was that unforgettable Tuesday night in November 2008 when a makeshift Munster team came within five minutes of beating the All Blacks.

"I was on a development contract. There were six forwards on the bench and when Denis Leamy went down injured I didn't think I was coming on. I didn't actually get up off the bench to warm up. Next thing I was going on," he recalled of his 24th-minute introduction. "That was insane, that was an incredible experience.

“But probably the game I’m proudest of is the Glasgow game six days after Axel died,” said Holland of the 38-17 win over Glasgow the day after Foley’s funeral in October 2016. “I think what we did as a squad and as a club that week, how we composed ourselves and managed to go out and perform that day, against a quality Glasgow team at the time, it was incredibly impressive.

“It would have been very easy to go out with a lot of emotion and just perform for 10 minutes, but I think the manner in which we did it, even with Earlsie getting sent off, it was a testament to everything we had done under Axel.

“He had been with us for so many years through A teams and everything. I think that was something, in incredibly difficult circumstances, that I’m very proud of. The atmosphere that day was just off the charts.

As to spending more time with his family, one wondered how he intended putting bread on the table. “That’s a good question, I’m certainly not a soccer player,” he admitted with a laugh.

“I’ve a few things in the pipeline, nothing concrete. I’m not going to go into coaching. It is the most time-consuming, difficult job that I’ve seen. It’s a very tough job and I’ve a lot of respect for all coaches.

“I’m not going to just walk totally away from rugby but I’m not going to be working in rugby in a professional capacity. Look, I’m lucky. I’ve been through college, I’ve done a couple of courses and so a few things in the pipeline. I’m just going to take a little bit of time when I finish to assess what I want to do, relax, reset and go again with whatever the future may hold.”

And the best of luck to him.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times