Guinness PRO12, Aviva Stadium, Dublin 2/4/2016 Leinster vs Munster Johnny Holland of Munster kicks a penalty Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Hotline Munster :: Jonathan Holland

Hotline Munster is a new feature on Three Red Kings where I’ll have a chat with Munster player’s past and present about their own game, Munster’s game and the goings on in the rugby world. 

When I arranged to have a chat with former Munster 10, Jonathan Holland, in the last few days, I resolved early to not make his forced early retirement from the game a focus point. After all, it’s been done (there’s a really good one here) and, besides, there’s a lot more to this guy than just an unfortunate retirement at the criminally young age of 25.

I wanted to know what he made of the Lions game last week, and what we might expect from the Lions next time out.

Part One :: The Lions

The Lions test is coming again this weekend. What are your thoughts on the first Lions test match? In your opinion, where was the game won and lost from a tactical perspective?

JH – “It’s a hard one because I thought they did quite well for 50 minutes. It was waves and waves of All Black attack, though. New Zealand were very smart tactically. They completely used the Lions line speed against them. The Lions line speed was always going to come up heaviest in midfield and the ruck defence would stay the same. The All Blacks played inside that line speed. You look at the main difference between New Zealand and the Lions, the Lions played off 9 – a tip on happened on every five carries? For New Zealand, they did that tip on every other carry and they just kept getting over the gain line, even by half a yard here and there but before you knew it, the Lions were just retreating and retreating. That upset the Lions line speed.

The Lions were still ready to come off the line, but New Zealand’s movement around the fringes was the biggest factor in the defeat. The backs did well enough, but the forwards didn’t really do enough to stop the easy yards. The Lions were always going backwards. The All Blacks just kept getting quick ball after quick ball and getting their danger men into the game. Aaron Smith was just unreal.”

He was just fizzing from ruck to ruck. I hadn’t really seen a team play off nine in the way New Zealand did in this game. A mixture of pods – forwards and backs – it was highly effective. 

JH – “I think it’s the New Zealand handling that stands out. In that weather, their skills were far superior. That was a dirty winter day down in New Zealand. It was definitely very wet and it barely came across on the TV coverage. It was the offloads they had, too. They were very calculated – they probably all went to hand – at least I don’t remember any stupid ones on the deck. Very hard to play against.”

Going into Test 2, what do the Lions have to remedy compared to the first test? 

JH – “It’s tough. If you look at the Super Rugby guys, their physicality across the board is unbelievable. Even last Tuesday against the Hurricanes, their physicality was outstanding. They just kept coming off the line. It’s so hard to get go forward against New Zealand, and it’s a bit of a cliche but they need to do that in this test.

I look at Liam Williams unlocking the All Blacks like he did and I think ‘they have to go for that again here’. They have to throw the dice a little bit. I know it’s a dangerous one against New Zealand and you don’t want to open the game up too much, but you have to try something. I know that a lot of that comes down to timing and the timing will be a little off with new combinations, but they have to go after it.

They’ll have to go after the rucks too, at some stage. They held off and that essentially let Aaron Smith do what he wants. That’s probably a big reason why they’re bringing Warburton back in. I know it’s the All Blacks and they’ll probably kill you regardless, but you have to go at something.

In the first half of test one, the Lions were standing out of the rucks to number up in defence but they were ceding quick ball. When they cede quick ball and then the collisions, they were in big trouble.”

A lot of it comes down to back row roles, doesn’t it? And how they pertain to the overall defensive system. The whole O’Mahony v Warburton thing is predicated on this idea that O’Mahony isn’t a top operator on the floor when given licence to do so. 

JH – “Look, Pete is as good as anyone on the ground. You’d always see pictures of him for Ireland freaking out after winning a turnover. He’s definitely no slouch there. It’s a bad way for Gatland to be, I think. He doesn’t back himself at all. He made a big decision to drop the tour captain last week, and then this week he’s dropping the other captain. You can’t really reverse a decision after one week like that. That’s two massive decisions in one week.

It’s the same as bringing over six lads from nearby and then doesn’t back them by playing them. Fair enough, there was a lot of hype about it, and it was probably the wrong decision in the first place, but fucking back yourself up and show people that you did it for a reason.”

He’s backing out of everything and it doesn’t show much confidence in what he’s doing.”

***

Part Two :: The Same Old

In between our talk on the Lions and Munster’s preseason (that one’s coming in a few days) I couldn’t help but ask about how he’s doing outside of rugby. He called me on the way back from helping a buddy out with nutrition last Wednesday evening, so I wanted to ask how things were going in general.

You’re probably sick of talking about the retirement now, I’d say.

He laughs.

JH – “Yeah, I don’t mind talking about it but I just wonder “who’s actually going to be listening to it at this stage”. Like it’s a platform to cry about myself saying “how unfortunate I was” and “oh, everyone feel sorry for me”. Obviously, it’s a big story for me but I don’t know who’d be listening to it at this stage.”

Do you get many people asking about the retirement, and what you’re up to post-rugby?

JH – “Everybody! I don’t really have much of an answer for them either, which is kind of the worst part. I think about “life” every now and then and get a little freaked out, like.”

Ah, stop. It’s unreal.
(Side note: As a guy in his 30s running a website/t-shirt business/sports writing gig, freaking out about life is the song of my people. 

JH – “It really hit home this summer seeing the Scannell’s heading off on the Irish tour. Not that I think that I would have deserved to be there but it’s just a ‘what if?’ scenario.”

Personally, I think you’d have had a great shot [at touring] if you carried the form of 2015/2016 into last season.

JH – “People say that to me, but I’m not going to say I would have had a strong chance or something. I would have liked to think that I’d have put my best foot forward. I was at that stage where I was starting to prove it to myself. I was at a gig the other day at the Marquee – Walking On Cars – and I had such admiration for the way the lead singer was just moving, dancing, about the stage. I thought to myself that he was really physically expressing himself in a way that’s kind of similar to stepping a guy on a rugby pitch. It got me thinking that, since the injury, I don’t really have that opportunity to express myself physically on the pitch anymore.”

I’ve often written and said that if it wasn’t for the run you had when you came back into the side towards the end of 2015/2016, I don’t know if Munster pull it out of the fire at the end of the year the way it happened. To come in the way you did, straight into the 10 shirt and just ‘Boom!’ straight up to the standard was so impressive to me. Like the game at the Aviva against Leinster – I was thinking “what a player we have here”. Then there was the injury and, man, what a dose. 

JH – “I was nearly the same. I did feel I played very well, kind of coming for nothing. I was surprised as well – I was completely shitting myself! But I was playing it cool and things worked out for me on the pitch and that helped with the idea people think my persona was all calm and relaxed. I was in a heap in my head. I’m a real perfectionist. If I missed a kick or something I couldn’t stop thinking about it when I go home. Even doing my steps on the tiles in the kitchen so I could see exactly what my set up was. It’d take over your life. Then I’d go into the game, shitting myself for the whole game going “don’t make mistakes, don’t make mistakes”. On Saturday night, you’re delighted but then you’re back at it again on Sunday morning. It’s six and half days of ‘fucking hell” and then half a day of ‘that was class’.”

So it was six and a half days of torture, with the game as a respite? I get that. 

JH – “And it’s not like I was lying to people about my persona because I’m an honest guy. It’s not like I wasn’t being real with the ‘persona’ of being cool and collected, but that’s the way I am when it comes to games.”

Well, you could hardly say to the press, “oh yeah, I’m totally bricking it for Saturday”, could you?  

JH – “Well yeah, I try to be straight up with people because that’s the way I am. I’d say that I was looking forward to it, and a bit nervous about it or whatever – I wouldn’t lie to anybody – but you can’t really say, “yeah, I’m shitting myself” either.”

I suppose when you’re dealing with press guys, you can never really be completely honest about your feelings before a game because you’d be afraid about how it came across. You mention that you’re shitting it before a game and all of a sudden people are talking bollocks about “mindset issues” and whatever else when lots of players hate the build up to games.

JH – “Well, I’d always try to be completely honest in interviews. Sometimes I felt that the interviews were set up to corral you into an article that they’d already written though, which frustrated me quite a bit. I just tried to be a real person when I was doing those. I was sick of doing the same thing. I would have made a conscious effort to be a real person. I was sick of the same old – oh yeah, credit to the lads – all that stuff. But I’m conscious of going in on a Monday or Tuesday and being corralled into answers. Like they had the article already written, and just needed a quote from me to top it off.”

A fair few journalists do this, actually. 

“It’s annoying. Like they’d ask me something like “Oh, would you say Ronan O’Gara was your hero?” knowing that I could hardly say anything else. Ronan O’Gara was the man when I was growing up, ruling the world. I was a young 10 growing up in Cork – of course I looked up to ROG! But I couldn’t say that the actual player I looked at was Johnny Wilkinson. Next thing I see a headline with “O’Gara is Johnny Holland’s Hero” and I just rolled my eyes.”

It’s the obvious one, isn’t it? Munster’s new Cork 10 idolises O’Gara!  

“Who would want to read that? But by the end I was much more comfortable answering the questions and just being myself, I suppose.”

***

My conversation with Jonathan revealed a few things I already assumed – razor sharp instincts on the game, huge rugby IQ – but I was struck by what a loss he has been to Munster going forward. This kind of smarts, honesty and drive will be a huge gift to whatever he decides to do, I just wish it could have been in the red shirt of Munster.

Part Three of Jonathan Holland’s Player Chat – focusing on Munster’s preseason – will be out after the Lions game.

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