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Munster men key to slaying French beast

The Six Nations trip to Italy is always one to remember. More so than any of the other away trips, rugby seems to take over Rome a bit more and once again last week didn't disappoint.

It was a great weekend for all the supporters, but on the field the entertainment was well down the scale for anyone not engrossed in the rough and tumble of forward play.

Really, there was only about ten minutes where the action got a bit more exciting; the rest of it had the feel of a dead rubber about it.

But in all reality, that's exactly what Ireland and Joe Schmidt would have wanted. The two points are in the bag, and with a relatively depleted squad they managed to get a decent points tally on the board. Job done, I'd say.

While it is always about the four provinces becoming one when they pull on an Ireland shirt, I was pleased to see the Munster contingent doing so well.

Top of that list stands Ian Keatley; I thought he showed some lovely touches in Rome. His goal-kicking would have been his primary focus, but after a nervy opening ten minutes I though he controlled play beautifully.

There was one stage where he was in a bit of trouble going back for a ball, but he sold a beautiful dummy and turned and kicked in for the corner. That really turned the game because it was a situation where they were piling on a lot of pressure and it could have gone horribly bad.

While he would have expected to kick those penalties on a normal day, your Six Nations debut is far from normal, so far play to him.

With Tommy O'Donnell and Conor Murray crossing for the two tries all the points came from Munster players.

Tommy did really well in the build up to Conor's try as well, he peeled off the maul early unlike the previous mauls, which Italy didn't expect, and then Conor applied the finishing touch.

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But it was his own try where we saw what he has to offer. If he gets a bit of space he is very dangerous. He has quick feet, a long stride and he can carry that pace for a long time. With that added upper body strength he now has I'd love to see him freed up a bit more to work with the centres - I think he could really excel there.


I'd say Joe Schmidt is delighted with how Simon Zebo is progressing as an international rugby player.

Twelve months ago he seemed to be out in the cold, but he got a 'to-do' list and he has slowly improved every aspect of his game as requested. He is now hitting rucks, is solid in defence, and even seems to have improved in attack as well.

The lineout performed very well, so Paulie and Peter O'Mahony will be delighted.

Peter is bang in form, and with Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Iain Henderson returning, and with Jordi Murphy, Tommy and Robbie Diack there too, the back-row is becoming the hardest row to predict.

While France were very impressive at times against Scotland, the game was still in the balance right to the end. They were excellent at the breakdown and managed to force 21 turnovers, but you'd have to wonder if Wayne Barnes will let as much go there as Nigel Owens did last week.

The size of the French squad is an issue, though. Last week they brought on Uni Atonio (24.5 stone) against Scotland and we saw against Australia the impact that Will Skelton had.

With Ireland not being the biggest team the fear is France might try and outsize us, break through one-on-one tackles to break the gain-line.

In Camille Lopez, France now have a real steady hand in the No 10 shirt and if Ireland lose their discipline he will certainly punish them. We all remember what he's like from Clermont in the Champions Cup.

But I still think Ireland are going to win. France managed to get quite a few line-breaks against Scotland but they failed to take advantage of them.

The centre partnership will get severely tested against the wrecking ball Mathieu Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana, but if that area of the park remains solid, Ireland have the tools for a second win.

Great chance for others to stake a claim

So far this year Munster have performed pretty well when their international players have been away on Ireland duty, and I expect that to continue tomorrow against the Cardiff Blues.

Paddy Butler's late try helped an understrength Munster beat Cardiff in November, while they also had a good win against Dragons around the same time - and both of them away from home.

The standards have been kept high by the lads that might not usually feature regularly, and with the Champions Cup is now gone for the season, they have a great chance of forcing their way into the team for the rest of the campaign.

I will be really interested to see how Irish Independent Park goes tomorrow. It really looks the picture and it has the possibility of becoming a bit of a fortress.

I don't think we saw it at its best for a fairly dour Wolfhounds match, but I think with Cardiff, Glasgow and Edinburgh to play there in the coming weeks, it could be a fairly fiery destination for teams. After all, Munster is a provincial team, it represents the whole six counties and I'd love to see Munster's new stadium become home again.

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