Varley pressing for bench spot

DAMIEN VARLEY may have been sitting at his kitchen table in Limerick less than a fortnight ago but having been called up to the Ireland World Cup squad as an emergency replacement he is not content to just be along for the journey.

Flown out to New Zealand on the eve of the Australia game as his fellow Munster hooker Jerry Flannery succumbed to another calf injury, Varley has his sights set on a place in Sunday’s matchday squad at the Otago Stadium for the must-win Pool C clash against Italy.

“You get to a certain stage and you want to keep progressing,” Varley said in Dunedin yesterday. “I was disappointed initially when I didn’t make the squad; I was delighted when I got called up and now that you’re here you know you have to forget all that stuff. You’re in the environment and you have to push on. Certainly I would like to be pushing for a spot in the 22.”

Having missed out on a place in the 30-man squad announced by Declan Kidney in August, Varley had returned from the Ireland training camp at Carton House to Munster, to train and play for his province during the opening skirmishes of the RaboDirect PRO12 campaign.

As one of the players put on standby by Kidney, though, Varley was poised for the call with bag packed and ready to go.

“I was having breakfast, getting ready to go training with Munster. I got a phone call off Declan and I jumped at the opportunity. Obviously it’s very sad for Jerry to get injured like that. Having said that, every guy has to take your opportunity when you’re given it and from a personal point of view I was delighted to get a call out.”

Varley arrived in New Zealand in time to take his place in the stands at Eden Park, Auckland, two Saturdays ago for what would become a landmark first World Cup victory over Australia.

“It was an unbelievable atmosphere and an unbelievable environment to come into,” the hooker said. “I was lucky in that regard. The amount of Irish support there was unbelievable. I think I was in shock being here, and I was wrecked throughout the game from the jet lag. But the way the forwards played and their dominance up front is one thing I took from the game, and how they bullied the Australians all over the place. That’s the one thing I’ll take from it, certainly.”

Fired up by the victory, Varley then had an agonising two-day wait to start training with the squad as Ireland decamped to the shores of Lake Taupo to recuperate from their clash with the Tri-Nations champions.

“I was really looking forward to getting involved and hoping to throw my name into the ring for the upcoming games. It was a very anxious wait. I didn’t know what the schedule was when I arrived over. It was only the following morning when we were travelling to Taupo that I realised there were two days of waiting for me.

“Obviously everyone else was delighted with the rest and I was there for two days with my training kit on, waiting to go. But there is a great buzz and a great atmosphere among the whole team. The lads are training very well.”

With Sean Cronin starting against Russia last Sunday and Rory Best in line to resume his place in a first-choice front row between Cian Healy and Mike Ross, Varley has limited opportunity to push his candidacy for a place in the match-day 22 but he is going to give it his best shot.

“You have to keep your head down and train hard, train no differently than you do in a normal week, to put yourself in a position to get out here in the first place. The last thing you need to do is start panicking and do something stupid in training.

“The Italians have a strong scrum and we’ll do a lot of work on scrummaging this week, and when I get in there hopefully I’ll be able to stake a claim. We do a lot of technique stuff, probably ... at the start of the week.

“We wouldn’t really be hammering into each other as much as we would a few weeks ago but there’s still places and opportunities to get on the team.”

Varley’s strengths as a scrummager advance his cause for a place against Ireland’s strongest opponents in the group in that set-piece.

“Italy are renowned for their strong scrummaging,” he said. “The only experience I have of playing them is the two Italian teams in the Magners League. They’re big men, very aggressive and they’ve a tight unit when it comes to scrummaging, so I think that’s something we’ll have to target and combat.”

Despite the physical presence of the Italian front row of Salvatore Perugini, Leonardo Ghiraldini and Martin Castrogiovanni, the Munster hooker sees their added size as a double-edged sword for Irish ambitions.

“It’s a simple enough game, rugby, and the size of them makes a huge difference,” Varley said. “But the bigger you are, maybe the more tired you become, and if your technique is strong enough, you can exploit areas and weaknesses like that.”

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