When Billy Holland announced his retirement from rugby this week, my reaction can best be described with a reference to ‘Cool Runnings’, the feelgood film about the Jamaican bobsleigh team’s debut at the 1988 Winter Olympics. The most moving scene comes after the Jamaicans overturn their bobsleigh, ending their hopes of success. Defiantly, the four men insist on picking it up and carrying it to the finish line.
The onlookers begin to clap, nodding their heads in respect and ultimately cheering very loudly as the Jamaicans proudly march home. When I read that this season would be Billy’s last in red, I’m sure thousands of people around the country, from all sports and none, joined me in smiling, nodding my head and saluting everything he has achieved, as he begins to make his way to the finish line.
All too often, a player’s retirement announcement is greeted with sorrow. The days of everyone expecting to play for their home club for more than a decade and go out on a high are gone. In fact, it has become such a rare occurrence that when it does happen, it’s something quite special. Billy is a genuine, engaging guy, universally loved by anyone that has been lucky enough to play with him, and the absence of his leadership, character and unrivalled capacity for cringe, will leave an enormous hole in the dressing room next season.
With 241 Munster appearances to his name so far, there aren’t enough fixtures left for him to catch Donncha O’Callaghan’s figure of 268. While he won’t finish with the highest total in Munster’s history, I would argue that his is the most impressive, and is a story that almost certainly won’t be seen again.
Unlike so many people that reach the dizzy heights of playing 241 games for their home club, Billy didn’t become a regular in the Munster side for many years after his debut at 22.
He had nothing handed to him in the course of his career, and his success has been the result of intellect, perseverance and hard work. Given how fundamental a cog he has been in the Munster wheel in recent years, it’s easy to forget that Billy was routinely playing in the British & Irish Cup well into his mid-20s. I know from experience that it’s not a position anyone wants to be in.
He had his opportunities to leave. I’m sure there were times he regretted the fact he didn’t take them. But aren’t we all glad that he decided to stick around.
This wouldn’t be common knowledge, but Billy has been a de-facto lineout coach in Munster for a number of years now. Such is the influence he has in this area of the game that his absence will be a genuine concern for the coaching ticket as they look ahead to next season.
Having started his career as a back-row, he identified the fact that calling lineouts was not just something he could do, it was something he could be world-class at, and that he would be best served by a permanent move into the second row. Pragmatism like this is surprisingly rare in rugby, I have found. There is no shortage of stubbornness among professional athletes.
Munster’s Simon Zebo and Billy Holland celebrate after defeating Toulon in a Champions Cup game at Thomond Park in 2018. Picture: INPHO/Gary Carr
So he worked, tirelessly, to become one of the best in the business. He would be the first to admit that being a 6′ 4 lineout caller isn’t ideal when you’re standing alongside a 6′ 10 Devon Toner or 6′ 7 James Ryan.
The consistency and solidity of Munster’s lineout over the years is the perfect illustration of the fact that in the age of freakishly big men and car-crash collisions, there is a still a place for people to outsmart and out-think their opponents.
That encapsulates Billy Holland as a player. He isn’t the biggest. He isn’t the most powerful. But rather than trying to be something he was not, he had the confidence and self-assuredness to back what he had, in the knowledge that he could offer something other players could not.
The scarcity of this in today’s game should not be underestimated. Many people do the opposite. I’m one of those that did.
Like Billy, I was neither the biggest nor most powerful man in my position. I became preoccupied by it. I measured the value I added to the side by the number that stared back at me when I stepped on the scale each morning.
I packed the weight on and ultimately got so big that at one point, not only did I resemble overfed livestock of some description as I trundled around the pitch, I was actually too big to be effective. I had sacrificed the mobility that separated me from others in the quest to be something I was not, and it cost me. I could have learned from Billy’s approach to the game, the way I hope many young players are learning from it now.
When a sporting career finishes, it’s easy to engage in hyperbole. It’s not an exaggeration, however, to say that Billy is one of the last of his kind. You will always have seasoned internationals that will spend their entire careers at an Irish province, but the players that line out every weekend in their home team’s jersey until the age of 35 are becoming rarer and rarer.
The thing is, players like Billy, Stephen Archer, and many others before them represent what Munster Rugby is supposed to be about. You need longevity and familiarity in a dressing room to develop a culture. I never appreciated this until I went to Grenoble, where you could count the number of local lads on one hand, and half the squad changed every year. I know from talking to friends in England that many clubs have a similar issue there.
Supporters lament the transient nature of pro rugby now, and it would be naive to think that problem won’t ultimately filter into Ireland. In any team sport, you desperately need the mainstays in the dressing room that can pass the values and traditions of the club onto the next generation. Like folklore that used to be passed down through the generations in Ireland, once it gets lost, it is very hard to rediscover.
Billy could play until he is 45 if he wanted to.
I’m sure CEO Ian Flanagan would be delighted if he did. But as he said himself, the time has come, and after 14 years, an era is coming to an end. Munster is losing one of the greatest mainstays it has ever had, and I look forward to shaking his hand when we cross paths again and tell him in person what a pleasure it was to have shared so many years of my life with him.