Billy Holland: relishing chance to follow in father’s footsteps

Jerry Holland had been on Ireland’s hugely controversial tour of apartheid South Africa

Who doesn’t love a good family story on Test week? Particularly about a son finally following in his father’s controversial footsteps. The Hollands are a central part of the four proud provinces of Ireland’s rugby history.

The son is Billy Holland. Despite already tipping over 31, he will not be satisfied with one Ireland jersey. The aim is to reel in the father. First he must survive Canada but two of Jerry Holland's three caps came alongside Brendan Foley, the third following five seasons later at Lansdowne Road locking with Donal Lenihan against Wales.

The late, great Moss Keane, among others, was always in the way. Just as Paul O’Connell, Donnacha O’Callaghan, Mick O’Driscoll and Donnacha Ryan have proved so unmoving as Holland jnr reached full maturity.

South Africa tour

Keane wasn’t shifted by Holland snr. Politics intervened, as the Kerry man worked for the department of agriculture. Straight decision: pensionable job or amateur rugby tour?


Not the government, nor the people, not Tony Ward, Donal Spring nor Hugo MacNeill could convince the IRFU to abandon the South Africa tour of 1981. Not the Catholic Church, not pleas from Jesuit priests, not even Nelson Mandela's incarceration on Robben Island could make them see reason.

Despite an appalled public, despite a letter from then taoiseach Charlie Haughey urging them to stand down, the stubborn Ireland decision-makers delivered on their agreement to play seven games across the apartheid-riddled country, facing the Springboks in Cape Town and Durban Test matches.

“He had to quit his job because it was during apartheid and there was a lot of controversy whether the Irish team would go or not,” Billy says. “He was recently married when he headed off for two, three months to South Africa.”

What was the job? “An alarms business. He didn’t go back to that. It was a huge commitment. It’s a lot easier for us, we get paid to do this. There is no giving up jobs.”

Such was the overwhelming disgust, the squad had to sneak out of Ireland from different ports and escape routes before gathering in London.

Inglorious exits

An Evening Press editorial stated: "In one of the most inglorious exits from the country ever, the IRFU team to misrepresent Ireland against South Africa slunk out of Dublin virtually in disguise and certainly, in the eyes of most of their fellow countrymen, in disgrace."

Anyway, Jerry Holland went on to manage Munster during the glory years so Billy was there for all of that too.

“I remember going back in to get sticky spray for Mick O’Driscoll. He looks as old as he is now when he was 18 years old. I remember going up to Con to watch Munster play Connacht in front of 200 people. That would be part of the reason I stayed put. I knew what I wanted,” he says.

“Just because you know what you want doesn’t mean you get it, but it you have something to chase.”

The chase is sometimes the best part but it can drive a man insane.

“You could call it patience. I would call it stubbornness. I’ve been behind Paulie, Micko, Donners O’Callaghan, Donners Ryan but I’ve learned a huge amount off them. If you are not training with them and getting better, you are in the wrong game,” he says.

Game time

That was an awfully long queue, and Holland almost took up a contract and guarantee of game time in England.

“I was thinking of going to a different club, across the water. I decided to give it another two years,” he says.

“It is something that would drive you mental when you are younger, when you are seeing guys, you know I played under 20 with Seánie O’Brien, Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney, all these lads, they are off winning grand slams and you are off in f**king Rotherham or some dive like that playing A rugby. But it makes you stronger, it makes you mentally strong.

“It can go any which way but I stuck at it. I was stubborn. Put the foot down, kept working on my game. Getting an opportunity now to make my debut.”

Why stay? “I would have grown up with my father being involved with Munster, I love Munster and love Irish rugby and everything it represents,” he says.

“Getting to play in front of your family week in, week out. If I had gone off to the UK I would have been on my own. That’s something that means a lot to me.”

Well, his time has come to run the Ireland line-out on Saturday night. Like O’Connell, Ryan and the rest did before him. A long road, with some unplanned stop-offs along the way with Emerging Ireland.

“I was in Tbilisi and Bucharest. Play rugby, see the world, as they say.”

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent