Billy Holland has been bearing a heavy load recently. He has already started all 13 of Munster's games this season and, just shy of racking up 1,000 minutes of game time, he's already over half-way toward emulating last year's all-time high of almost 2,000 minutes. Bring it on, for it wasn't always this way.
In all, Holland has played in 42 of Munster's last 46 games since the beginning of last season, starting 27 of them, which is more than he had managed by his mid-20s. Holland didn't make his Munster debut until he was 22, didn't play in his first European Champions Cup game until he was 24 and even by the time he turned 30 he'd only started one game in Europe.
But against Leicester at Welford Road on Sunday (kick-off 5.30pm) he will be playing in his 16th European Cup game in a row, and only four of them have been off the bench. So ask him if he expects to have a rest any time soon and he says: "Hopefully not; not any time soon anyway."
I see guys who are 19/20 who are in the squad and kind of peeved off at not playing a whole lot and they've got a cap or two, and I hadn't even been capped at that stage
“It is what everyone wants to do, play every weekend,” he adds. “I suppose the more you play, the fitter you get, the more you’re in tune with the team and the more you play the easier it gets. Certainly when you are at the end of a 10-game block there before the autumn internationals the energy levels were beginning to wane, but you have a nice break then so flying it again.”
Holland admits he’s not one of those players who’d be remotely inclined to inform a coach that he might need a rest.
“No, there are probably only a handful of players in the country who can afford to do that and get picked the following weekend. The rest of us mere mortals would be told, ‘good luck’,” he says with cheery self-deprecation.
Holland had to bide his time behind a stellar list of locks at Munster. By the time he turned 26 he’d played 29 games, but now the 32-year-old Cork Constitution man has 173 competitive games for his province under his belt.
“Yeah, I suppose when you have to work hard for something you do appreciate it more. I didn’t get anything easy, sitting behind Donnacha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell, Mick O’Driscoll and Donnacha Ryan for years. But I’d like to think I did learn a huge amount off them, and then when you get your opportunity it means a hell of a lot.
“I see guys who are 19/20 who are in the squad and kind of peeved off at not playing a whole lot and they’ve got a cap or two, and I hadn’t even been capped at that stage. You’d kind of be laughing at them, but big days like last weekend and next Sunday in Welford Road, they’re the games you play for, and they’re the reason I stayed put and worked hard to get my position, and it does make it all the sweeter, particularly when you win.”
Were there times when he considered moving on? “Yeah, many; every two years when your contract was up,” he says, laughing. “You have to think about it. There was one stage when I came very, very close to leaving and I tossed a coin and it landed on ‘leave’. So I tossed it another 25-30 times and that itself gave me the answer I was looking for,” says Holland.
“Yeah, it could have worked differently. There were injuries the following year and I got a few more games. It’s stubbornness. There’s plenty of fellas, you look at Tommy O’Donnell. I was in the academy with Tommy, the same with Duncan Williams, it’s stubbornness that keeps you in there, and it makes you work harder then when you’re on the pitch. You really don’t want to let the side down. It means a huge amount to you.
“It was 2013 and probably 2011 as well. In 2013 it was an English club, in 2011 there was no club,” he says, laughing again. “I was looking for clubs but nobody would have me.”
When it was suggested to him that last Saturday’s performance must have been satisfying, he points out that they conceded a try from a line-out maul, one more than the whole of last season, and as for Sunday’s rematch at Welford Road, he says: “I expect a backlash. We expected it last year, we expected them to come hard at our breakdown and they did and we weren’t able to handle it, so we have to take lessons from that.”
“Leicester have never lost back-to-back games in Rounds 3 and 4 in Europe in, I think, 17 years, so they will be gunning for us after last weekend. I think we need to focus on the breakdown, playing smart, not running up blind alleys and giving them good opportunities. We need to improve on our discipline, there are plenty of areas of our game we need to improve on, but I would expect them to come at our breakdown and expect them to move the ball around quite a lot.”