Varley’s insatiable hunger propelling him right to the top after early setbacks
THE Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin is an impressive edifice, part of a complex that harks back to the grand designs of Ireland's boom era.
As a backdrop to this week's Irish Heineken Cup launch, the location fitted the bill nicely, dovetailing perfectly with a slick presentation to whet the appetite for the opening weekend of European action.
The All-Ireland League is far removed from the Sky Sports-driven glitz of the Heineken Cup but, for those of us who still think wistfully of the glory days of Irish rugby's domestic club competition, it was heartening to hear Tony McGahan reference the AIL as a meaningful path to the top.
Munster's coach was responding to a question about Damien Varley, the hooker who used the AIL and his own determination to further his career with such success that the 26-year-old is a live contender to feature in Ireland's November internationals.
After a successful schools career with St Munchin's, which brought cup glory in 2002, Varley missed the professional boat and it was Limerick club Garryowen who stepped in to fill the void.
The club has a healthy tradition of producing quality hookers for Ireland, with Keith Wood and Pat Whelan wearing the light blue with distinction, and Varley's international debut in the summer against Australia was a source of tremendous pride in Dooradoyle.
Varley was an integral part of the Garryowen side that landed the treble of Munster Senior Cup, All-Ireland Cup and All-Ireland League titles in their wonder year of 2007 but, despite those achievements, making the jump from that level to full-time professional rugby was a leap of Bob Beamon proportions.
He had enjoyed a couple of runs off the bench for Munster at the end of the 2005/06 season but Jerry Flannery, Frankie Sheahan and Denis Fogarty were significant obstructions to Varley's progress at Munster, so he took matters into his own hands.
With a biomedical engineering degree in the vault, there was a sense of 'now or never' in terms of his rugby career, and Varley seized the initiative and set up a two-month trial with English giants Wasps at the start of the 2008/09 season.
"I set it out for myself before I went over to England that I wanted to get a contract at the end of the trial. Failing wasn't really an option," said Varley. "I had finished college, but there wasn't really something I wanted to work in straightaway."
He made a spectacular start with Wasps, who were struggling in the English Premiership when he arrived. Registered barely 24 hours before their crucial clash with Leicester, Varley stepped into a Wasps dressing-room full of quizzical looks and tentative handshakes.
Eighty minutes later, he was a hero, having come off the bench to score the crucial try, with a vital 23-point contribution coming from the boot of another Garryowen man, Jeremy Staunton.
Varley went onto secure his first professional contract, turning out 10 times for Wasps and picking up valuable insights into what it took to make it in the pro game -- not least from former French hooker Raphael Ibanez.
"There are no bad experiences in a career like this. Heading over there, you gain a new aspect of rugby," said Varley. "I did learn an awful lot there under Ibanez. If you can pick up little things, like scrummaging, line-out throwing, from whatever guys are ahead of you, I think that is very important. It's all part of the learning process and we are all always learning in this game."
Munster kept tabs on his progress and when McGahan came calling, it was a no-brainer for a player who always dreamed of representing his native province.
Last season, Varley was one of the success stories of Munster's year, featuring in 22 games, including the back-to-back clashes with Perpignan and subsequent knockout stages of the Heineken Cup.
When Flannery and Rory Best were ruled out of Ireland's summer tour to New Zealand and Australia, Varley was suddenly in the international set-up, earning that cap against the Wallabies in Brisbane.
There should be more to come. With Flannery yet to feature this season and Fogarty on the long-term injury list, considerable pressure has been heaped on Varley's shoulders and he has responded superbly.
He has played in all five matches thus far, starting four, and is the country's form hooker along with Connacht's Sean Cronin (another player who left the fringes of Munster to forge his career elsewhere) and strong showings over the next two weekends have to put him in the mix for Ireland's November series.
While taking on ball at pace (Varley understands the benefits of running from deep, unlike the standing-start brigade) has been the most eye-catching aspect of his game, the basics are also in place.
He has bulked up a good deal since his Garryowen days and brings that power to bear in defence and at scrum-time -- he had Leinster's Richardt Strauss under considerable pressure last weekend -- while his line-out throwing is solid.
The portents are good and Varley's story is all the more commendable as his progress has relied on a single-minded determination and a willingness to take the road less travelled. McGahan is certainly a fan and has brought the best out of the hooker over the last 12 months, with his glowing tribute in the Grand Canal theatre reflecting the Australian's satisfaction with how things have panned out.
"He's been tremendous," said McGahan. "Damien played a couple of games off the bench when I first came here and then going away for a year to Wasps gave him a taste of professional rugby. His contribution to the squad since has been great.
"He's a tremendous example to all club players who maybe don't go through the academy system or aren't picked up at an early age. He's persevered, he's had belief in himself and he's worked extremely hard.
"He's always wanted to make a mark regarding his professional career and he's done that. He is certainly putting his best foot forward every week to be an international player -- which is where he stepped up to at the end of last year. You take your hat off to people who have that perseverance and belief in themselves."