Back home Trevor Brennan had bad hands, and if you made one mistake every few games people picked up on it. You had bad hands in the past and you still have bad hands. The only which hung over my head when I came here was the Kefu incident from the World Cup in 1999. That was my only form as such.
They use forwards popping up in the back line a lot more, including me. I scored a try against Edinburgh, I scored two tries against Biarritz, I scored a try against Mont de Marsan, which I didn't do at home.
Over here forwards play like backs and backs play like forwards. You find backs hitting rucks. It's a different style of play and there isn't the pressure there was at home, on me anyway.
After being home for Christmas I find it more relaxing being back in Toulouse. Your time is more your own. Like yesterday I took the family to a health spa like Inchydoney in Clonakility, except on a bigger scale. It was about 16 degrees during the day, then dipped to minus three and snowed for the first time in five years here. But it didn't stick and by the afternoon it had cleared up.
It's a whole change in lifestyle, right down to how and what I eat and the amount of alocohol I drink by comparison to home. After a match you'd find it hard to get somebody to go for a pint with. They're just not big drinkers. After every home game we'd go out together as a team, we'd have a meal and there'd be a couple of bottoles of wine at the table. But by about 10.30 fellas would just drift home, whereas at home you'd have more teammates and friends to have a few drinks with.
When I went home over Christmas I was fairly conscious of the amount people were drinking around me, and I never thought I'd say that either. We do live in more of a pub culture, whereas here there's more to do.
Supermarkets, shops, just do not open on a Sunday. Nothing would be open on a Sunday except the odd restaurant. Everybody works a 35 hour week, by law. There's no such thing as overtime, and Sunday is a family day. Mind you, it can be a pain in the arse sometimes because you woyuldn't mind browsing around the shops on a Sunday as it might be your only day off.
The language barrier was bigger when I first came over as the lads were kind of taking the piss a bit. But I've picked it up a lot quicker than Paula has because I'm out working every day. It's like French students coming over to Ireland or vice versa, when you're actually thrown in with people and you're living with them every day you've no choice but to learn it.
We have three hours a week set up by the club. On a Monday we have one session at 10.00. You're finished by 12, have your lunch and then come back to the club by 2.00 for a two-hour lesson with Paula. We usually have the whole of Thursday off so we have a one hour lesson in the club, and then I get the odd lesson myself for â'¬30 off a neighbour who teaches English to French students.
You build up a big vocabulary but then there's the grammar, learning past present and future, and whether something is masculine or feminine. But the fact that you make the effort at all, the French just love that, especially with my accent.
I've developed a good few friends in the team. In the Leinster squad I was virtually the only one with a family. It was more of a single guy's scene. But here nearly half the squad are married and have kids _ Pelous, Ntamack, Michel Marfaing, Yannick Bru, I could go on. They all have kids.
When I was at home I met a few of the Leinster boys and it seemed like they trained every day, from Christmas Day to New Year's Day. There seeemd to be a different focus. But in saying that we play a lot more matches over here, and the domestic championship is right up there with the European Cup.
We beat Mont de Marsan 36-11 at home on December 21st, and we came home from December 22nd and returned on January 1st. We were back training on the second, and the next day beat Montauban 39-3 in a friendly.
I played number six in the first half and second row in the second half. I've played all the European games at six, and about 80% of the French Championship games in the second-row. We've lost Isitoto Maka, the number eight, for four months with a broken ankle following an accident in training on the Friday night before the Mont de Marsan game. Then we lost David Gerard, a second-row, with a medial ligament injury and we'll be lucky if he's back for the London Irish game the weekend after next.
I've only missed one game, against Agen a good while back, due to a one-match suspension. Over here they've a players' card system, like a driver's licence. They can take it off you for various things. They took mine off me for a week. I tackled a guy, he saw it as late, and a few punches were thrown. The two of us got a yellow card and then coming off he kicked me on the back of a leg so I pushed him back, and we started fighting again. The referee didn't see it but the touchjudge did and we got a second yellow card, though it was shown on the video that it had nothing to do with me as such. So I got a one-match and he got three or four.
Agen are leading our group at the moment, with one defeat in 11, whereas we've won nine of our 11. You play the other seven teams home and away, then the top four in each group play each other home and away again to qualify for the semi-finals. It's a lot of rugby.
Like Leinster if we win this weekend against Newport we're in the quarter-finals. At 4/1 I think we're a good bet. The way we play when we're on form is unbelievable. We seem to be only warming up in the first-half of matches. Watching the rugby from the stand that time against Perpignan, it was almost the best rugby I've ever watched.
We won 46-14 or something like that, whereas at the start of the season we lost away to Perpignan when we had two 18-year-olds in the front-row. Perpignan are rated about sixth or seventh in our pool at the moment. Their pack is excellent, they maul well and they've a good line-out. They've three options, two, four and six, and they also use a three-block system on defence.
Munster will need to stop them around the fringes. Their forwards like to pick and go a lot. It's only when they've sucked in the back-row and one or two backs that they move the ball out to their backs. But Munster will have done their analysis. They have the better backline, and they have a great record in France.
Perpignan at home are a different story but I honestly think Munster can beat them.
(In an interview with Gerry Thornley, The Irish Times).