Heineken Cup. France. Must-win.
Nothing new in all that for a Leinster side that has in the past posted victories in Bordeaux against Clermont Auvergne, Paris against Racing Metro, Brive, Toulouse, Agen, Bourgoin and Clermont itself.
For Jimmy Gopperth and Ian Madigan, however, new ground remains to be broken.
Neither man has piloted a side from the out-half slot for a Heineken Cup encounter on French soil before, even if the pair have some experience of what it is to feature in games of some import on the continent.
Madigan’s experience came 13 months when he played at full-back in the narrow defeat to Clermont.
Gopperth has faced Montauban, Albi and Lyon on their home turf with Newcastle Falcons, but only in the less intense Amlin Challenge Cup.
Which of them starts on Sunday against Castres, the French champions, at Stade Pierre Antoine is the question. Both have started eight times at out-half but the Irishman has filled the brief more as the season has grown legs.
Against that, Gopperth replaced Madigan during the second half of last weekend’s win away to Connacht and played a pivotal role in Matt O’Connor’s side come-from-behind win.
Even the Heineken Cup duties have been shared with Gopperth starting rounds one and two and Madigan chosen for three and four as the province continues to look to both to fill the considerable void left by Jonathan Sexton’s departure.
This weekend? Skills coach Richie Murphy spoke about their similarities but Gopperth is, rightly or wrongly, generally deemed to be the safer pair of hands and in a strong position for the side to be named tomorrow.
“The two lads have done a reasonable job for us when they’ve been in there,” said Murphy which would suggest that more could still be done.
“Johnny Sexton is obviously a massive loss but he’s gone now and he’s been gone for a while.
“The guys who have stepped into that position have run the team as best they can for us and they’ve done that job pretty well.”
The likelihood is that both will again be asked to contribute at some point or other in Castres at the weekend and a quick shuffle through Leinster’s previous successes in France give reason for optimism despite their inexperience in such bear pits.
Christian Warner, David Holwell, Felipe Contepomi and Sexton were the men at the wheel on the previous seven occasions where Leinster were successful in France. All bar the Racing man were playing in France with Leinster for the first time.
Castres are a tougher nut than most to crack at home, even by French standards. A two-point loss to Toulouse in December 2012 and draws with Bordeaux last season and Clermont last November have been the only Top 14 blots in over 18 months.
The one other reversal in that time came against Ulster 12 months ago when, interestingly, Mark Anscombe left Paddy Jackson on the bench and switched the experienced Ruan Pienaar from nine to ten for a famous 9-8 win.
“A very good side,” said Murphy. “Very strong at home. I think they’ve only conceded five tries on their home patch this season. It will be a very difficult day, a big physical team that likes to carry the ball at you. [They’re] very dangerous off broken field play and a massive pack as well.”
Leinster’s one visit to Stade Pierre Antoine ended in defeat in 2008 but Murphy discounted its significance and didn’t seem too bothered about sifting through Ulster’s success for signposts either.
“I know Ulster beat them over there last year in the Heineken but it is going to be a very difficult task. But we’ve been up against these situations before and the guys look forward to challenges like that.”
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