Competition set to ramp up in Foley's back-row as injury clears
Youghal flanker pumped for return to action from six-week lay-off after Leicester setback
After their much talked about World Cup heartache, an extended Irish rugby squad began their preparations for the Six Nations at Carton House last week.
Joe Schmidt has not given Munster flanker Dave O'Callaghan his chance just yet but many see the 26-year-old getting the nod at some stage in 2016.
The injury he picked up just before Christmas in Munster's Champions Cup defeat against Leicester Tigers at Welford Road did not help matters, but O'Callaghan is confident he will one day dip his toes at senior international level.
The Youghal native has already donned the international colours for U-18, U-20 and Emerging Ireland. But he remains focused on performing for his province and finding his place in a highly competitive Munster back-five.
"Short-term I want to get back to fitness and be in contention in the next couple of weeks. I have been out of it now for a short while. I just want to get back in and hopefully get some European time," he says.
"Further down the line obviously you see guys in Irish camp. You want to be in the mix there too. That only comes with getting in the team, playing well and winning games with Munster. That would be a goal for me too."
This season was the first time that O'Callaghan got his chance to push his physical and mental limits in pre-season, with a full period of preparation afforded by a good run without injury.
He played seven Pro12 games and three times in Europe before a torn abductor stalled 2015-16 for him. But he had already proved his worth and signed a two-year Munster contract extension on December 30.
That will keep him at the province until at least June 2018, and despite their downturn in fortunes recently, O'Callaghan says his native province remains the perfect fit.
"Munster is where I want to be, looking at young players coming through and the hunger in the squad. There is a lot of big things to come from this group and that's where I want to be for the next two years, so it was an easy decision."
O'Callaghan has played 52 times for Munster since his debut in 2011-12. Like many others, injury has cost him a bigger say, and he has had problems with tendons and ligaments in both knees.
But along with the toll the sport has taken on his body, O'Callaghan has learned more about how to keep himself fit and available. The experience of past injuries and constant education in the gym and on the training pitch has been invaluable.
"Injuries are a part of the game now, and you can't avoid it. But there are ways you can better prepare yourself," he says.
"With the S&C guys and the physios, there is a bigger focus on looking after guys, as there always was, but now in terms of mobility. There is a big focus on preparing ourselves to be in peak condition coming into training, and games.
"I understand my body more. Everyone's different. I struggled with tendon injuries in the last couple of years. You pick things up here and there, and a big part of the game these days is preparing your body for rugby."
But no matter how much preparation you put in, you cannot prevent the freak accidents that do occur. O'Callaghan was one of the stars as Munster began their season so well, but yet again he has had to face the despair of an injury setback.
"It had been a great season. I got game-time, which is what you want. You can gather a bit of form. Being fit for the whole of pre-season really helped too. And that stood to me until the Leicester game," he says.
"It was about 20 minutes in, when a ball broke and I was going to dive for it. I didn't see a fella to my right. He just came in and tried to block me off.
"Then I got caught awkwardly and he fell on me. I felt a bit of a tear, but I didn't think it was too bad.
"After the game it was confirmed it was a Grade 3 tear in my abductor. It's not life-threatening, but it was a six-week time-frame that I was given. I am four weeks into that now."
It was disappointing to suffer that fate before Christmas, especially with a busy fixture schedule and an Irish camp just around the corner.
But with the short recovery period O'Callaghan has kept his head down, and homed in on a few areas where he can improve his game. He wants to come back an even better player. But he knows it won't be easy to retrieve his place.
"I'm at about 110kg at the moment. I am looking to put on a bit of size while I'm out for the next few weeks. A big focus during pre-season and during the season is that we are able to get around the pitch, and that we have that mobility about us too," he says.
"In the back-row and second-row we have players that are versatile and dynamic, and that allows us to be able to play a bit more. We are all driving each other on and there is always healthy competition.
"It has always been the way at Munster in the back-five. There is always quality players, and that is only good for us. You see there with Tommy O'Donnell coming back in and what he brings.
"It certainly gets the best out of us. It definitely gets the best out of me. If you're not doing the business we have that calibre of player to come in, and that has always stood to us."