Keith Earls: Tendon op in September.

Anthony Foley has warned Keith Earls will have a battle to reclaim his place in the Munster side after naming the Ireland international in the replacements for the Pro12 clash against bottom-of-the-table Zebre today.

Keith Earls: Tendon op in September.

Earls has regained fitness after surgery on his patellar tendon last September and could make his first appearance of the season off the bench in Italy.

“He’s back fit,” the Munster coach said. “He’s had a long road to recovery. He got a procedure done earlier in the season and has worked his way back into contention.

“We need to see where he’s at this weekend before we can put him ahead of other people who have played consistently well so far but it’s an opportunity for him to stake a claim.”

Munster haven’t won away from home since the 38-12 defeat of the Dragons on November 21 but, with five victories from five against Zebre, that record will be expected to change.

However, having won just once in the last five in all competitions, Foley feels the key for his side is to find a more consistent level.

“Against Connacht we were 13-0 up and everything was going according to the way you should play with the wind at your back,” he said. “And then for 15 minutes we don’t really touch the ball and our influence is gone from the game. Then they got a try and that turned the game.

“From there they went on and won but it’s about that consistency of performance, that ability to keep the game within our control. We lost that for a period of time in the first half against Connacht.

“That becomes frustrating but we need to move on and try to get a consistent performance like we had in the first half against Glasgow, we had against Leinster and for the first 20-odd minutes against Connacht.”

Zebre’s only win against Irish opposition in 25 matches came against Ulster last September but with a pack that includes the experienced Marco Bortolami, Foley is wary of the threat.

“We played them in round three and it was a massive physical game,” he continued. “Their pack will produce a lot of go-forward ball, a lot of quality ball for (Brendon) Leonard and (Kelly) Haimona. These guys are quality half-backs and cause problems for a lot of opposition teams.

“They certainly did for us in round three and they did it to Ulster and have been unlucky not to win more games. It’s going to be a very tough, physical game for us.

“They have us at home and are going into Europe again next week. Everybody is getting primed and ready and looking forward to it. Small margins are going to dictate who wins and we’re hoping to come out at the right end of that. We understand they’re probably one of the more improved sides in the competition.”

And Foley, , who confirmed contracts negotiations with Peter O’Mahony are ongoing but refused to discuss links with Tomás O’Leary and Australian international Rob Horne, said he expects his players to have international selection in mind in the coming weeks.

“This is a part of the season where you’re looking at round five and six of Europe and looking to get out of the group but players also looking to impress Joe Schmidt to get into the Six Nations squad. There’s no summer tour so you’d imagine you’d need to be in a Six Nations squad to get into a World Cup squad. I’d imagine that a lot of guys would be looking to get that momentum.”

ZEBRE: D Odiete; G Venditti, T Iannone, K Haimona, L Sarto; E Padovani, B Leonard; A De Marchi, A Manici, L Redolfini; Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami (capt); F Cristiano, M Bergamasco, A van Schalkwyk.

Replacements: O Fabiani, L Leibson, D Chistolini, V Bernabo, J Sarto, L Orquera, M Bergamasco, G Palazanni.

MUNSTER: F Jones; R O’Mahony, P Howard, JJ Hanrahan, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; E Guinazu, K O’Byrne, S Archer; D Foley, B Holland; D O’Callaghan, P O’Mahony (Capt), CJ Stander.

Replacements: N Scannell, J Cronin, J Ryan, D O’Callaghan, P Butler, D Williams, K Earls, J Murphy.

Ref: Ian Davies (WRU).

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