IT'S back to European rugby for a fortnight with two tough trips to face a pair of heavy packs.

We head to France to face Top 14 leaders Clermont Auvergne next week but first up is tomorrow's game at Northampton.

I last played at Franklin's Gardens eight years ago in an Anglo-Welsh Cup game.

I started at openside in a pack captained by Steve Jones with Luke Charteris and Robert Sidoli at lock and Adam Jones at blindside.

That was because the Saints had a formidable pack led by props Soane Tonga'uiha and Brian Mujati – it was a baptism of fire for tighthead Dan Way on his first start! – and we had to battle hard.

We lost but I do remember the great atmosphere and we performed pretty well against a Northampton team who were challenging at the top of the Premiership.

It's a bit different this time, they're at the other end of the table and it's sod's law that we've got them after they suffered a late home loss to Newcastle.

They should have won after dominating for most of the game, so it's typical that we'll be up against a team feeling hard done by and looking to take it out on their next opponents... it happens so often to us!

But these games against English opponents are great and I am sure we will be cheered on by a sizeable travelling support, just as there was at Bath, Gloucester and Worcester in recent years.

After a tough post-mortem of our Leinster performance, we are desperate to get back out and make amends.

It's the third time this season that we will go up against Northampton and after our pre-season loss at Rodney Parade and then a Challenge Cup defeat in October we know that it will start up front tomorrow.

I'm set to partner Brandon Nansen, so it will be good to see what he can do after a frustrating few weeks because of a head injury.

It'll be another new partnership for me since moving forward to lock and I'm sad to report my worst fears have come true.

I've been strapping up to avoid the dreaded cauliflower ears (my mates insist I can't wear a scrum cap) but I caught a stray elbow or knee in a contact session. My left ear went black and a bit of a cauliflower has developed, not from scrummaging, it's a nightmare!

But there's no chance of that putting me off tomorrow and the carrot for all of us is a place against Clermont.

Aaron Jarvis, who moved to us from them last summer, has been telling us how special the Stade Marcel Michelin is and European fixtures like these next two are why we play the game.

They also have one of the biggest packs in Europe, so whether my 'meagre' weight will get the nod at lock we will see.

But a big performance – as a team and individually – at Northampton will only help all of our arguments to keep the jersey.