'If I can stay fit, I would love to play a proper Test match'
The Big Interview: James Cronin
Even though he only had two Munster games under his belt before Christmas, James Cronin found himself back in Ireland camp when team-mate and good friend Dave Kilcoyne picked up an injury against Castres.
The Ballincollig native has not featured for his country since he came off the replacements' bench against France in February 2016. He travelled to Spain for Ireland's warm-weather training camp and then spent some time in Carton House too.
But Kilcoyne's return to fitness means Cronin may have to wait that bit longer for his next Ireland cap. Nevertheless, he yearns to play again at the top level, and add to his three appearances there so far.
"I was just lucky that I got playing for Munster since December 26 against Leinster. I played a few games and they all went okay," says Cronin.
"Unfortunately, Killer picked up a knock, which is okay now again, thank God. I got my opportunity to show the Ireland coaching team that I am still knocking around. It was good just to be back in camp there. It was a really good experience being back in that environment.
"I went to Spain and I was in Carton House for the French week as well. But then I was sent back last week for game-time with Munster against Zebre, which I was more than happy to do.
"I was in camp when I was 24 or 25, I was knocking around the squad a good bit back then. Injuries disrupted my progress. If I can stay fit now, I would love to actually play a proper Test match.
"That is the goal for everyone that is playing around Ireland - to start a Test match. Just put your hand up and keep playing well for your province and hopefully you will get a break.
"Everyone wants to play for Ireland and go to the World Cup with them. You need to be playing well. But you can't be looking ahead 18 months down the line.
"All I am focusing on at the moment is the here and now with Munster."
The 27-year-old had a treacherous run at the start of the season, and injury put paid to his chances of regular inclusion in the provincial set-up, as Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber departed for South Africa.
Even when he returned from his first setback, Cronin was picked to play for the Barbarians against Tonga at Thomond Park, but injury caught up with him again.
Jacques van Rooyen replaced him after just ten minutes on a cold, wet night in Limerick on November 10, and nothing seemed to be going right for Cronin at that stage.
"I had a slow start to the season. I got a knee scope and then I picked up a few complications along the way with that. It was slow. My season didn't really get started until November," says Cronin.
"Then I tore my calf. It was another setback. That injury was completely separate. I was just unlucky that the calf tore and there was nothing I could do about it. It just tore in the scrum against Tonga.
"But it was a great experience playing for the Barbarians. I didn't expect it. I was selected to play for the Barbarians at the end of the last season, but I actually picked up a different injury so I couldn't play on that occasion either.
"It was good just to wear the jersey and go out onto the field this time. There was a short stint in it and it's something I would love to do again. Hopefully if I get another call-up to the Barbarians I will last longer than ten minutes.
"Overall, there were a few games where I would have played a bit, but that's the luck of the draw. Injuries are part and parcel of it these days in rugby. I just got dealt a poor hand with back-to-back injuries that ruled me out for the bones of 12 weeks.
"You just get on with them, there is nothing you can do, you just re-group and go again."
And he has recovered, since he returned as a replacement in Munster's massive interprovincial derby against Leinster at Thomond Park on St Stephen's Day, Cronin has gone from strength in the loosehead slot.
Since then he played against Ulster, Connacht, Racing 92, Castres and Zebre. Munster won three of those games, and were only edged out by Ulster after a second-half comeback in Belfast, and the Parisians late on at the U Arena.
Munster are second behind Glasgow Warriors in Conference A of the Guinness PRO14, while they have another massive chance of reaching the final four in the Champions Cup again this season.
Top 14 giants Toulon make the trip to Thomond Park on March 31 for a huge European quarter-final.
It's a mouth-watering fixture for everyone involved, but the Munster players are completely focused on the league for now.
"We put ourselves in a good position in that we have a home quarter-final against a very good Toulon side. That is all we can hope for," says Cronin.
"We are doing alright in our Conference in the PRO14 as well. It's important when the internationals are away that we keep the ball rolling down here. If we do that, we will see how we go. But silverware is always the goal for us. I see no reason why we can't compete for something.
"With the Champions Cup, it doesn't matter who you draw, come this stage of the tournament they are all top teams. We will focus on the next couple of games first.
"After the next break we have after three or four games we will re-focus again on the Champions Cup. But in the here and now it's all about the PRO14."
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