'The next target is to earn a start for Ireland'
Captain Damien Varley is looking to consign semi-final pain to history with starring role on Argentina tour
Munster skipper Damien Varley says he is determined to force his way into Joe Schmidt's plans and play a key role in Ireland's tour of Argentina this summer.
Varley is one of three hookers selected for the upcoming double-header with the Pumas and will vie with Ulster duo Rory Best and Rob Herring for the starting roles in South America.
As the man in possession of the No 2 jersey, Best is almost certain to start one of the two games, but Varley (30) is hoping to be in a position to add to the two caps he earned back in 2010.
For sure, injury has disrupted Varley's season. A continuing foot injury has disrupted the second half of this campaign, while a bout of concussion also scuppered his international ambitions earlier this season. But now that he's back in the Ireland fold, fit and ready for action, he's ready to transfer his Munster form into an Ireland shirt.
"I was always hopeful that I could play myself into contention and I was happy with how I was playing for Munster," said Varley.
"But still, when you get word saying you're in the squad, it's obviously exciting. It is another proud moment... hopefully we kick on and I get a bit of game time while I'm out there.
"That's the next focus – to put myself in a good position in Joe's eyes for selection and hopefully he'll see what I can contribute.
"It's probably hard to have any targets about getting a start. Obviously I would love to start one game – I would love to be involved in both games – but it would be great to start one of them out there.
"Right now for the next couple of weeks, I just have to train hard and know my stuff. Then I'll just hope and pray that Joe sees enough to select me from the start."
Ending his Munster season empty-handed with harsh defeats to Toulon and Glasgow, it might be easy to solely focus on a tricky last month. But on a personal level, Varley was very happy with most of the season.
After the season-ending injury to captain Peter O'Mahony, the obvious choice to replace him was current Ireland skipper Paul O'Connell. Varley says he was deeply honoured when Rob Penney asked him to lead such a team of experienced faces after this turbulent time in his season.
"To be honest, I didn't expect it. I was humbled to be asked, considering some of the guys that were around me, particularly with Paul being on the team, and I was asked to do it in some huge games. I jumped at the opportunity.
"I've had the highs of some great wins and the honour of being captain was a huge moment for me this season, but it probably was an up-and-down season too.
"I was injured in the Six Nations, I was hopeful I could have made the squad, but unfortunately I got ruled out with concussion and my foot injury (plantar fasciitis). The injury is fine – it's an on-going issue and it's about managing it.
"I get an awful lot of treatment trying to keep pain away but it's something you just get through, particularly when you're playing big games. And when you want to play and put yourself forward for the tour, it's important. It's something I can deal with in the off-season to try and get fixed," he said.
There are plenty of positives for players and management to take from this season, but ultimately in 10 or 20 years' time, there will be nothing to mark 2013-14 as a remarkable year in the history of Munster Rugby.
But Varley still sees the green shoots, and the progress made this season can possibly help the province furnish the awards cabinet in the future, he says.
"Look, it's still a relatively young squad here and there has definitely been huge progression made from this time last year. We were able to grind out games that we would always have lost before that.
"I think we've grown a lot, but I think we've an awful lot to do to learn and to grow more. Probably losing last year's Heineken Cup semi and losing two semi-finals this year, we realise we could have won them.
"That shows the squad how difficult it is to win at the latter end of a competition and we probably need to reassess the way we do certain things throughout the year. We need to get the little day-to-day things right regularly in order for us to win on the big days."
After two years under Rob Penney's reign, the pre-season is going have a very fresh feel about it. When Penney and Simon Mannix arrived, it injected a fresh optimism to Munster and now, with old faces returning, Varley is expecting a similar boost.
His former team-mates Jerry Flannery and Mick O'Driscoll will be back in the set-up, and the hooker thinks it makes for an interesting dynamic.
"It's an exciting time in Munster Rugby. You can see Axel putting his own stamp on things at the minute. An all-Irish coaching staff for Munster – I think it's going to be a really exciting place to be next season.
"Jerry went off and did his masters in strength and conditioning; an area he was always really good at. It is going to be interesting to see how he comes across with scrums, it's such a technical area, and it is changing an awful lot.
"That's an area where you can coach together as front-rows. It's going to be really good having him back. He brings a lot of enthusiasm to it and has a great work ethic that he showed when he played here for so long.
"It will be good to have everyone back. These guys all want to make a huge contribution to Munster, they've learnt their trade and have come back and they will pass on their experience and knowledge.
"For sure, it is an exciting time from a player's point of view. We'll all start the season afresh trying to impress the coaches, and the coaches trying to put their own stamp on things. It's going to be a different environment next year and one that I think could generate a lot of success with Munster."