Playing without first-choice stars is something all four Irish clubs have become accustomed to, thanks to the vagaries of the rugby season and the IRFU’s player management system but come Heineken Cup time, old certainties usually held true.
With Leinster this past four seasons, that meant Sexton at 10 but Castres will have spent the majority of this week unsure who will fill his boots at the RDS on Saturday and thus studying copious amounts of tape on both Jimmy Gopperth and Ian Madigan.
This is bonus territory for those who assumed the Kiwi would play second fiddle to Madigan on his arrival from Newcastle Falcons and his performance away to Ospreys last weekend was proof he is capable of more than bench duty.
“It was really impressive,” said Rob Kearney. “I’m delighted for him. He has settled in really well. He steered the ship really well for us and there were times when he made some big plays and some really big decisions.”
Gopperth’s nerveless display in what was his Heineken debut is less of a surprise when one considers he is 29 now and that he started his career almost a decade ago alongside men such as Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Cory Jane at the Hurricanes.
In 2006, he nailed a 55-metre penalty to win a Super Rugby semi-final against the Waratahs and he enjoyed a decent season with the Blues before swapping home for a four-year stint on England’s northeast coast with Newcastle.
The Falcons may have struggled but Gopperth twice kicked more points than anyone in the Premiership and his character was evident when he stayed to help take the club back to the top flight when he could have flown the coup after relegation.
This is a man, after all, who did a pretty good job of filling Jonny Wilkinson’s boots so stepping into Jonny Sexton’s has just been a variation on an old theme, even if Madigan will provide stiffer competition than he knew across the water.
“They are two quality players and I am sure we are going to see a lot of back and forth between the two of them all year,” said Kearney. “It’s not ideal for one man because everyone wants to play week in and week out and especially in the big ones.
“The chances of one guy starting the whole campaign are pretty slim. It is going to be the two of them together and they need to remain as positive as possible and ensure that their attitude when they are not being picked is for the greater good of the team.
“Once we get that from them we will be in a really strong place.”
Joe Schmidt made a habit of starting Isaac Boss away from home in Europe and Eoin Reddan at home and Matt O’Connor aped that approach in Swansea last weekend. It would be no surprise if he took a similar stance with his tens.
Gopperth was excellent at inviting colleagues into the line with flat passes but the accepted wisdom is that Madigan offers more pizzazz with ball in hand and the onus in Ballsbridge will lean towards attack rather than the defensive effort in Wales.
“As a team you always attack better at home,” said Kearney. “That’s what we have seen down the years. Away from home you put a bit more focus on that territorial battle so I would like to think that we will attack a bit more.
“Our mindset last weekend was to attack from quite deep. We didn’t quite get there on a few occasions but this is a big French team and we don’t want to get caught playing too much ball in our own half because they are tough at the breakdown and hard to shift off the ball.”