'World Cup place is my main target but it will be very tough'
Prop wants to put injury nightmare behind him and work his way back into Schmidt's plans
After back-to-back Six Nations titles Joe Schmidt's options from No 1 to 15 have never looked so healthy.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the loosehead position had turned into a two-horse race with Leinster props Cian Healy and Jack McGrath fighting it out between themselves.
However, the Munster duo of James Cronin and Dave Kilcoyne, who were both selected for last summer's touring party to Argentina, are still hot on their heels, despite playing very little part in the glory.
Both props have been plagued with injuries this season - Kilcoyne picked up a knee injury in Munster's Champions Cup defeat to Clermont which left him short on game time ahead of the Six Nations while Cronin made it one step further.
The 24-year-old Ballincollig native came on for McGrath in Ireland's 26-3 win over Italy, but suffered a knee injury in Rome.
"It was my lateral meniscus in my knee, and it required a cartilage clean-up job. It's not a big procedure but it's a six- to eight-week kind of injury. It was bad timing when you want to push on and play further into the Six Nations but that's rugby, you take the ups and downs of it.
"It will be hard to dislodge McGrath and Healy now because they are both good players but Dave is a good player and so is John Ryan here too. It's by no means impossible but luck will have a massive part to play in it. I've been unlucky this year with a bad run of injuries but in fairness to Cian Healy and Kilcoyne they have had theirs as well.
"Jack has been okay but you don't know what is around the corner, anyone can get injured. There is a mantra there that you are only one injury away from being an international.
"I know myself from being there, I just got injured and that was the end of me. They are definitely in pole position but you don't know what's around the corner.
"Wearing the No 1 jersey in the World Cup has to be the goal. I might not even get selected for the squad but the goal is always there to be the best in your country.
"It would be a massive honour to wear that jersey so that is the goal at the moment especially considering it's on over in England," said Cronin.
And with Ireland's first game in the World Cup against Canada not until September 19 opportunity knocks for the former Ballincollig Community School student. It's all Munster for the coming months and a return to full fitness is paramount if he has ambitions of having an extended run in the team.
On top of his two caps for Ireland, Cronin has made 39 appearances for his province, scoring four tries, where he has been part of the senior set-up for the three seasons. After being knocked out at the pool stage in the Champions Cup, Munster have focused all of their efforts on the Pro12, a crown that has been eluded them since 2011.
They are currently third in the standings and face into a massive clash against Connacht in Thomond Park tomorrow but Munster do have a favourable run-in.
"It's a massive few months for Munster now with five rounds left in the Pro12 and no European competition to distract us.
"Fellas are chomping at the bit and everyone is rowing in together already. The ultimate goal is to win the Pro12 this year. We probably haven't picked up as much silverware as we should in this competition.
"We have been knocking on doors in semi-finals over the last few years and this group of players are determined to not just get to the final but to win it. We just have to do it for ourselves and the fans of course."
Cronin returned to modified training this week and after a treacherous season so far it could yet have a silver lining.
However, first he needs to win the battle in Munster. With Ryan's star still rising and Kilcoyne also itching for game time, the competition will be ferocious. But it's a friendly rivalry, according to Cronin, one that benefits all three concerned and which will surely turn them into better professionals in the long run.
"This year hasn't gone exactly to plan and I have had a lot of those niggly six-to-eight-week injuries but I have always pushed myself to come back. It is just annoying that I can't get a run of games together because that is what you will need to put your name in the hat for national selection.
"You need to be playing five or six games on the bounce and be really impressing at the same time.
"I haven't been doing that and, fair play to the other lads who are in the Irish squad, they are rightfully there at the moment. But that won't stop myself or Dave Kilcoyne or whoever from knocking the door down.
"I am probably in the back seat here at Munster as well at the moment because the other two lads are playing well.
"And they are playing which is the main thing for them. It will be up to me to come back now and whatever level that I play at, put my hand up and make sure the coaches haven't forgot about me.
"I am only 22 so it is great to have someone of Dave's experience there to help me grow as a loosehead.
"The competition is great but we don't lose sight of the fact that we are on the same team at the end of the day.
"If I am starting I would ask him about opposition players that he might have played against and vice versa. That is the kind of ethos we have here in Munster."