Johnny Holland ready to kick on after Munster breakthrough
Munster outhalf has become key man as province aim to secure top-six place
Johnny Holland’s on-field demeanour has been one of the Cork man’s notable attributes since his breakthrough for Munster this season. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Last Friday in Musgrave Park was special, not least for a Cork lad who had been making the short trek from Togher as a nipper to support the team and pester the players for autographs. The stuff dreams are made of, and Johnny Holland has had plenty of time, too much so, to dream.
This was the 24-year-old’s first competitive match there for Munster. A product of Cork club rugby, he had to come back from a year’s enforced absence mid-way through what has finally become his breakthrough season.
That their presence in next season’s European Champions Cup hinged on them winning the game ensured a full house on a perfect evening. Neither Holland nor Munster were fazed.
“We were under the pump, but first there was Andrew Conway’s little cameo for Zeebs’ try, the kind of 70- or 80-metre try we’d like to do more often. Pressure can bring fear – it’s important not to go into your shell – and that was a great try. We needed it and the crowd were class.”
Overlooking a deserted Thomond Park from an executive room in midweek, Holland is reflecting on last Friday’s game against Edinburgh. “I still call it Musgrave Park. It’s hard for me to change because I grew up near there,” he says. We like this bright, engaging lad already.
“I was looking forward to the game so much; probably too much. I had a lot of people coming to the game for me personally and a lot of the people had interest in the game for us. The crowd is very close – you can nearly hear conversations going on in the crowd.”
The noise was such that, for once, he couldn’t make out his father’s voice. That Holland first began playing mini-rugby at the age of five with Douglas was entirely due to his dad, Pat, who had captained the club’s J2 side as an openside. He and his son briefly switched to Dolphin for another year before settling in Sunday’s Well where Holland, from under-10s to under-18s, played all his underage rugby.
“That’s where I learned a lot of my rugby, through Ken Arigo, ” says Holland, in reference to the long-time club stalwart and coach. “He had a really good rugby brain and he taught us the initial basics, himself and Tony Mulcahy. We had quite a good team as well. Every two years, at our own age grade, we got to finals and won a few.”
Rather than ‘Pres’ or ‘Christians’, Holland came through Coláiste Chríost Rí, a GAA-playing school, which regularly mystifies people. “They say: ‘What? You didn’t go to Christians or Pres? There can’t be anywhere else.’ But there is, a small traditional school called Chríost Rí. I think there was one attempted petition to have rugby played in the school, but the petition wasn’t even allowed to be sent around,” he says, laughing. “But they were dead right too. They’ve got great values over there.”
Holland played football with Greenwood, mostly as a left-sided or central midfielder and played his last bit of Gaelic football in his first year at UCC, after which rugby took hold.
One of triplets, with a twin sister Gillian and twin brother Cormac, as well as an older sister, Aisling, he smiles in mild wonder that people are so taken with this.
“It’s the usual question but my answer is always ‘I don’t know what it’s like not to be.’ It’s great though. Hanging out with the two of them has always been fun. When we went on holidays as kids, and it’s not that we weren’t sociable or anything, we stuck to ourselves because we didn’t have to find friends. We ganged up on our older sister a small bit, but sure that’s all part and parcel of it – three against one,” he recalls with a chuckle.
They grew up in “a very normal estate” in Togher, which is how he describes his upbringing. “Togher is not your normal rugby background, but we had a very, very solid upbringing from our parents, keeping ourselves out of trouble.”
His dad is a prison officer, while his mum, Joan, combined rearing their four children with work as a dry cleaner. “When I was going through the [Munster] sub academy, that was probably the toughest part of playing rugby ever, and they have to fund you financially. Yet they always supported me and they don’t miss a game. They’re obsessive about it, in a good way. They make it a mission to get to all the games.”
They went to all the Musgrave Park games and occasionally the old Thomond Park as well. He particularly remembers the win against Bourgoin in October 2006, when he was 14.
“It was Lifeimi Mafi’s second game and I just remember him smashing one player and handing off the number 10. Myself and my brother were obsessed with him. I’d say we didn’t watch any other player.”
Needless to say Ronan O’Gara was another boyhood hero.
“You can’t get away from that one,” he says, chuckling. “It’s the biggest stereotype but it’s also the biggest truth. When you go up in a province with someone of that stature you can’t look past him. Jonny Wilkinson was also someone I looked to, because I loved his physicality, and he’s a leftie. But you couldn’t look too far past Rog.
“It’s one thing, say, for a player to go through someone or put in a big hit, but staying calm to put the ball between the posts and kick to the corners like he did was probably the most impressive part.
“When you’re angry or frustrated, or you’ve a point to prove, it’s easy to show your physical side. But it’s another thing to show your mental strength. You could bring him back on Saturday and he’s probably kick 21 or 24 points.”
Alas Holland was “just outside the loop” in the outhalf pecking order, reaching the full academy in O’Gara’s last season, 2012-13. “JJ [Hanrahan] was in full training and I remember watching Rog give him advice and being jealous of it. The frustrating thing for me was that he [O’Gara] had to move on for me get a spot training with the seniors and get a contract,” he quips, good-naturedly.
Holland’s first breakthrough, per se, was being picked for the Munster under-18s. While studying commerce at UCC, he only allowed himself one or two nights out in his first year. “Not that I did it too much, because I look after myself, perhaps a bit too much.”
After playing for the UCC under-20s he went into their senior team for a year, before Brian Walsh enticed him to Cork Con in 2011. “It was a good decision. They’re a top club, and I learned a lot from Brian. He made me think more about the game.”
Holland made his Munster debut as a replacement against Cardiff in November 2013, and his first start in September of the following season, whereupon a badly torn hamstring – suffered in a Munster A game at Temple Hill against Nottingham – sidelined him for over a year, from November 2014 to last December.
Long, hard slog
“I got injured the same day Jean de Villiers destroyed his knee against Wales, and he came back, played in the World Cup and retired, while I was still injured,” he notes, dryly. “It was a long, hard slog, which was frustrating because I tried to be meticulous in everything I did and it still didn’t work for me.
“It was like throwing away a year and watching everyone else develop around me, but do you know what, mentally I developed much more than I could have physically playing the game for that year. I was young to realise you don’t get a second chance. It brought back a lot of my love for the game in a weird way.”
Weekly goal-setting in the gym became the norm in on-field training weeks, and his return came playing for a Munster development XV against the Irish under-20s at Musgrave Park. “I think my dad was standing alone watching that game. I was playing with a lot of young fellas, which felt really strange, because I thought I was young, but clearly not any more, and we were playing against young fellas.
“Coming back for your first game in over a year, most players would want to just get through it, but I was like ‘I could really be shown up here’. It’s not a great position to be in. It’s lose-lose,” he says, half-jesting.
A few games with Constitution and the Munster As kept him ticking over. Come March, Holland was given last-quarter cameos against the Dragons and Cardiff before starting a week later in the 47-0 win over Zebre at Thomond Park.
“I didn’t think I’d start the game just because I hadn’t played a lot of rugby, and then I thought: ‘There, that’s your starting game for the season and we’ll forget about you for a while and we’ll carry on with trying to rescue the season’. But it was good to get my hands on the ball a lot and manage the game, so it was very beneficial for me.”
Foley had seen enough to start Holland against Leinster at the Aviva. He doesn’t come across as a nervous type of player, for what has been striking has been his calm on-field demeanour, but he admits with a smile: “If you know what’s going on in my head and my body it’s a totally different story.
“But I try to be [calm]. You have to be as a 10. If you don’t look calm and composed to your team-mates, why would they bother listening to you? Maybe it does come naturally. I’d never seen myself in that setting before this season. I would have said I’m not like that. But maybe I am.”
At the Aviva, Holland augmented his first try for Munster by extending his run of successful kicks to 11 out of 11, including the touchline conversion, which gave him more satisfaction than the try.
Connacht provided a wake-up call for all and sundry, before that restorative win over Edinburgh; Holland’s first full 80 minutes for Munster. Now they stand one final 80-minute push away from cementing a place in next season’s Champions Cup, something which Holland has described as “absolutely non-nogotiable”.
This last month and a half has been, he admits, bittersweet. “It’s been good for me, but it’s not good for any of the players to be playing on a losing team. Even if we’ve won and I’m out with my girlfriend, she’ll say ‘what’s wrong with you? You won the game?’ ‘Yeah,’ I’d say, ‘but it could have gone better for me.’ That’s your own little battle with yourself.”
Moving on to a two-year professional contract next season will be time for his career to kick on. “It’s not good enough to just be selected. You need to be influential.”
All the more so as that red 10 jersey comes with history.
“It’s iconic and people are used to 10s in Munster being the main man as such. It’s something I probably would have shied away from before my injury. It could give you goosebumps even thinking about it. So you take it by the scruff of the neck and see what you can do with it. But if you’re wearing that number 10 jersey in Munster everyone is protecting you. There’s nobody in that pack that won’t fight for you. It’s a special place to be at the same time.”
Maybe, finally, this is his time, and not before time.