Player diary: Mike Ross - Paul an immense player - we won't see his like again
After being out injured for the longest period of time in my professional career, it was great to be back in full training last week. When you come back from an injury there's always a degree of concern in your head as to whether it's actually 100 per cent, but you just have to get on with it and trust in the work you've put in with the medical staff and the conditioners.
The first few pitch sessions were a bit of a shock to the system nonetheless, as no matter how much fitness you do it's hard to replicate the full demands of training. Still, it was good to be back in the mix again.
Midweek brought the sad news that Paul O'Connell was being forced to hang up his boots. It brought the curtain down on a seismic career, including two Heineken Cups, a Grand Slam, two Six Nations championships and two Lions tours.
Generally, there are two types of second-row - the grunt second-row who is usually behind the tighthead and provides ballast around the park, and the lighter rangier one who runs the lineout. Uniquely, Paulie could do both roles, and he probably was the best scrummaging lock I've ever worked with and I've worked with a few!
On several occasions, I was saved from a bad engagement by his strength, like having a railway sleeper behind you. That was one of his greatest attributes - he could make the players around him look better than they were, and it's why he'll be up there with the greatest to ever wear the green jersey.
Training went well during the week, I hit my first series of scrums in eight weeks and was disgusted with how much my neck and shoulders hurt the following day!
I wasn't the only one on the comeback trail. Cian Healy had also been passed fit so the two of us had the pleasure of taking to the field once again in each other's company. The match against Zebre ended up being a bit of a blow-out - tough on Zebre as they probably wouldn't have the squad depth to buffer against international call-ups.
The result put us in a good place and we're a couple of points off the top of the Pro12 with a game in hand. The sequence of games during the Six Nations is critical to making sure that you're in a good spot in the league when the international players return, and it's usually a great opportunity for younger, less experienced players.
Players like Adam Byrne, Cian Kelleher and Dan Leavy would have benefited and the run will serve them well going forward.
I actually didn't get to see much of the Ireland-France match as my son so happened to have his fifth birthday party that day. He's a little rugby-obsessed (can't imagine why), so his mother had arranged a little rugby training session run by a company called Rugbytots for himself and 15 of his closest friends before they stuffed their faces with cake. There was no TV available but myself and a couple of the other dads could be found huddled around one phone, watching a stream of the game. The result didn't put us in a great mood but I know from experience that the disappointment in the dressing room would have been ten times worse.
The bad feeling from a loss like that lingers, it stings you for days after, even when you think that you've gotten over it. Losing Sean O'Brien early in the game didn't help; I'd been looking forward to seeing how he'd go in tandem with CJ Stander.
The French were fairly lucky to keep 15 on the pitch, but they kept the pressure on and it told in the end. It makes the game against England even more critical, and I'm sure the lads won't be lacking motivation to get our first win over there since 2010.
As for me, there's a game against Cardiff this weekend that takes priority. I've never played on an artificial surface before, and it's not an honour I'm sure I want! There's something pure and simple about grass and mud, and getting your face covered in rubber crumb just isn't the same.
We've only one focus, and that's to maintain our place in the top four to give us a shot at some silverware in May.