by Jonny Holland.
What would Felix do?
It became my mantra. Whenever a new difficulty appeared during my career as a professional rugby player, that’s what I’d ask myself.
Usually, it was the hamstring. Another set-back, or figuring out how to play through the low level pain, how to manage my inability to sprint or kick without exacerbating the problem, or just finding a way to survive another summer of rehab.
It became my motivational spark: what would Felix do?
In 2015 Ireland fullback Felix Jones was forced to retire through injury aged only 28. Munster quickly retained the value of Felix’s character and diligence by making him a coach. Every day he’d arrived for training switched on, even more so than the players because he’d be working long after we’d be away home.
It made me feel guilty. I owed it to Felix to play again after hamstring surgery.
Visualising the end goal keeps you on track, especially when you’re injured. Remind yourself what you are capable of doing. On the long road back I asked Munster performance analyst George Murray to put together my highlights reel. I’d heard Paulie O’Connell did it to improve his left arm carries. Little reminders. George compiled clips, mostly Munster A and Cork Con matches of me kicking for touch, making a half break or a nice touchline conversion.
”This is how good you are when you get it right. You can still play this game.
It worked. I made it back to the pinnacle any Munster out-half seeks in the modern era: pitting yourself against Johnny Sexton at the Aviva stadium.
For people looking in, the Leinster game in April 2016 was the start of my career. Doubt I was mapped outside Munster before that try and the other scores.
It was certainly the biggest moment of my career. Going point for point with the Ireland outhalf in front of 40,000 people was the result of all those long hours when nobody was looking.
“Well done Jonny,” Sexton said afterwards.
”Ah, I thought, he knows my name. Of course he did, I was the Munster 10, so the Leinster 10 does his homework.
Game over, Leinster 16-13 Munster, and I traded blows with Sexton. We lost but it filled me with confidence. I more than survived. The “well done Jonny” was a mark of respect. I’d hardly become his primary rival or anything of the sort, but the duel was genuine.
I was a contender, nothing more nothing less.
Still only 24, it felt like the beginning.
By September 2016 I was forced to retire from rugby. Out like a light. Done. Hamstrung forever more.
This is my all too brief Sports Chronicle.
I could start at the beginning, which would be junior days at Sunday’s Well, or even further back to The Barr’s GAA club where my brother still plays football, or I could tell you about facing the likes of JJ Hanrahan and Jack Carty – known outhalves I encountered coming through the system. Coming up via Munster Youths the benefits of schools cup matches were never part of the journey. But that’s ok. I did what I normally do – turned a potential negative into a motivational tool (that’s also what Felix did).
You could very happily live your life that way.
May as well open at the moment people remember: Munster v Leinster in Dublin. Anthony Foley took me off after 57 minutes. There was plenty made of that, because I was going so well, but Axel knew I was returning from injury. He was well aware I’d only been training since December and still struggling to get through full sessions; playing with niggles which turned out to be my hamstring hanging off the bone by a single thread (I’d be blaming soft surfaces, or sand surfaces, and when the frost came I’d tell myself that was the problem but it was far greater).
Axel got slaughtered for making the right call. I’d no preseason under my belt and fatigue was kicking in. The moment before Ian Keatley arrived I dropped a normal pass that came from Conor Murray. Axel noticed, and the decision was made.
”People passed judgement without all the information. People always give out when Munster lose. That comes with wearing the jersey. They slap the back off you when you win.
This was the beginning of my very short tenure as the Munster outhalf. My mindset was week to week, mainly because of all the rehab and pain.
That night at the Aviva was my first truly top grade game. We were under pressure that season, battling for sixth place in the Pro 12 in order to qualify for the Champions Cup. That doesn’t happen in Munster.
I knew Axel and the other coaches weren’t just having a look to see how I coped. They were backing me. They needed a performance from everyone. It was enjoyable pressure. Running sessions as The No. 10 was alien. I’d be up half the night making sure all the information was lodged in the brain. I’d spent enough time waiting for the opportunity.
I always believed I had high standards. Then you come across men like Paul O’Connell, Ronan O’Gara, Pete O’Mahony and Johnny Sexton.
One day, while nursing the hamstring in the University of Limerick canteen, which overlooks our training pitch, Paulie let out a roar.
“Jonny, tell me why Keats isn’t drawing the eyes of the fourth defender?!”
Paulie was standing beside me, instead of being in the thick of the session, so lunch was abandoned. His point was a passive 10 allows the opposition to hammer the pod of forwards and take gainline. And that guarantees slow possession.
“Jonny,” he turned, “Tell me why he is doing that?!”
Paulie wanted Keats to be more active but we were in our own half, I explained. A forward’s mindset is go in one direction but the outhalf must see every angle. You must offer yourself as an option to attack while organising the next phase and keep an eye on the corners for territorial gain with your boot.
Even Paulie sometimes needs an outhalf to explain what another outhalf is doing. We talked it out until he was satisfied.
His expectations were enormous. I loved that.
“Put the next one on me, kid,” he instructed another time under our posts when he wanted to win back the restart.
That got the heart racing. Jesus, no margin for error here. I tuned in, and found him.
You have to be careful these high standards aren’t automatically transferred from the dressing room into every day life. It doesn’t work like that at home!
But that’s why Paulie was the player he was and coach he is going to be, if he isn’t already.
Watching Sexton from the opposite slot on the field was equally fascinating; an all too brief 57 minute tutorial from the best in the business. You have to constantly keep an eye on him. Even in the Leinster 22 I’d be caught looking at the ruck and not checking how he’s shaping up. He was out the back marshalling others to create a picture so he can attack with options. That ruthlessness was great to witness up close. He never knocked off. You could see he was thinking a couple of moves ahead all the time, like a chess player. I wasn’t uncomfortable, it was an enjoyable experience, one I wanted again and again.
The Aviva is different to Thomond Park. The crowd feel closer. I was conscious of the mass of blue but I was also aware my family and Chloe were up there somewhere. It makes you pull yourself up after a heavy blow, don’t let anyone see the pain because your people are watching with their hearts in their mouths. You should be focused on the game but external thoughts creep into your mind. You don’t want to worry them.
My last game of rugby was a shocker against Scarlets. A must win in Limerick to get us into Europe. I’d lost the hot streak off the kicking tee a few weeks back. The hamstring was in bits. There are three ligaments keeping a tendon on the bone – one was long gone, the second clinging by a thread so the third carries the mother load. Thick and sore, all the time, I couldn’t really practice my kicking. Even soloed the ball in Thomond Park! It wasn’t a claim to fame, more an act of indecision after pulling out of a clearing kick and offloading to Francis Saili who knocked on.
Jesus, what am I at.
I went into summer injured but confident a few weeks of rehab would have me right for a new contract, and life as a fully fledged Munster professional. The starting 10. But I returned for preseason in pain. Niggles were not ideal under the new Rassie Erasmus regime where back-to-back-to-back rugby sessions came thick and fast every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
More work on our feet. More meetings. More information with longer days. I was barely getting through the first Tuesday session.
Even though I was a peripheral figure again, retirement was not a consideration. No way.
That is until one day when Keats made a break in training. I better get after him. Tightness. Borderline small strain. It was down lower, I told the physios, I’m fine. A week later I passed the fitness test. It’s higher up the leg that I’ve problems, I stated, we should address that at some stage.
Well, let’s do that so.
The scan began a snow ball effect. We’d been managing the problem – me and the physios – because I was getting opportunities in the red jersey.
When we parked up and looked inside the leg with a microscope the unsolved injury, despite surgery two years previously, was clear to see.
Ever tear your hamstring off the bone?
The ball was there. Temple Hill in Cork, Munster A v Nottingham, and the ball was definitely there. In for the poach but I was reaching, poor technique over the ball and a prop saw the chance to legitimately barrel an 80 kilo outhalf. He doubled me over. It felt like someone had scrawled the hamstring with a blade.
It never got better.
I’ve had to park the process. The physios did everything right by me. I left no stone unturned in the rehabilitation process. There were different opinions from consultants and specialists about how it could have been managed. A scan is only signals. The final outcome, when it came, was clear: Rugby has to stop.
By the time I went over to London to see Fares Haddad – the consultant orthopaedic surgeon who also treated O’Connell – it was too late. I’d been playing with it partially torn off the bone. If the injury happened again in the morning I’d slow down before choosing which route to take, and where Id get the surgery done, but there are insurance restrictions I wasn’t fully aware of.
You have to move on.
The positive spin I constantly placed upon my rehab definitely played a part in the recovery. I probably shouldn’t have come back, but I did, I became the Munster 10 against Leinster at the Aviva stadium.
I turned each challenge into an opportunity. Polished each facet of my game whenever I could.
Every night there’d be a new goal. I’d journal five to ten achievable actions.
Despite being injured I can…
Despite being injured I will…
The law of attraction, positive reinforcement, call it what you want. Maybe the universe was helping me, maybe not, but there is definitely something to it.
You can have your opinion on Conor McGregor but I’ve never seen an Irish person with so much confidence. He openly says something will happen, convinces himself, then goes and does it.
How you carry yourself alters your mindset. McGregor – I’m a massive fan in one sense – has smashed old Irish cultural norms. The putting people in their place attitude is fading. In Ireland we are not supposed to talk out loud about our goals, our dreams even, because the slagging will be awful.
That’s changing with Joe Schmidt’s Ireland as well, and it should change.
Not sure I’d have played in the Leinster game without this mentality. There was another motivation on those wet, cold, horrible evenings when nobody was looking. What would Felix do?
If you enjoyed Jonny’s story, you might like to read former Leinster rugby player Damian Browne’s Not ‘Just’ A Rugby Player.
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