Madigan form gives O'Connor 'a tough call'
As he confirmed that Brian O'Driscoll would, indeed, start for Leinster this weekend after passing all the necessary post-concussion tests, Matt O'Connor was invited to submit the names of the other 14 to tackle Northampton.
The identity of his out-half has generated much debate this week, with Ian Madigan belatedly rumoured to be getting the nod ahead of Jimmy Gopperth, who started the first two Heineken Cup games of the season.
As O'Connor admits, it was understandable that he began his maiden coaching campaign with Leinster by allying himself with Gopperth – firstly, he was more readily available. But he also represented a sense of familiarity with which the coach was comfortable.
Now that he has also acquired an intimate acquaintance with what Madigan can offer, one senses that O'Connor may feel a tad more liberated in allowing himself to select the gifted Dubliner.
"That's probably fair," averred the Australian, without revealing his decision. "Ian hasn't been in the environment nearly as long as Jimmy, whether that was pre-season or November.
"So, Jimmy had a bit of an advantage, which he capitalised on and played very, very well. He was outstanding in those first two Heineken Cup games and he has continued that form through the Rabo. Jimmy has been very good for us, he has taken his opportunities.
"But then Ian was very good at the weekend against Scarlets. It's a tough call. Every week it is going to be a tough call, but, thankfully, we have got two really good blokes who are able to deliver for us."
For O'Connor, it is the blend of the team that matters. Hence, it is quite possible that Isaac Boss, for example, may only play if Gopperth is selected, as a half-back pairing of Eoin Reddan and Madigan seems to make more sense.
"It's like the back-row, it is about combinations," agrees O'Connor.
"Both guys have slightly different skill sets. Whoever gets the nod has to stand up and deliver a quality performance because the competition in the group is so high."
Rob Kearney, whose rivalry with Isa Nacewa, combined with injury difficulties, cost him dearly in terms of Heineken Cup final appearances, appreciates the necessity for competition, even if he doesn't exactly embrace it.
"It's part and parcel," he smiles, when reminded that newly-arrived Springbok Zane Kirchner has forged a reputation in the Louth man's position – all but one of the South African's Test starts have been at full-back.
"I know no different – which is good. It's great to have such a good standard of players across the board – knowing that, if you slip up, there is someone there to out you pretty quickly.
"Ultimately, it is best for both players involved. It gets the best out of guys whether they like it or not."
O'Connor reveals: "Zane said he just wants to play full-back," before elaborating on the dilemma presented by having so many options.
"Well, so many of the skills are transferable. A lot of the best wingers in the world are actually full-backs, if you look at the Cory Janes...
"It gives a lot to a team a lot to have blokes who are out-and-out full-backs in the back three. I'm sure he (Kirchner) will find himself on the wing at some stage, because the skill-set is so similar."
From O'Connor's comments, it appears that Dave Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald will fill the other back three slots as the coach seeks to load his side with his big names for the first crack at Northampton.
"We certainly are looking at winning both games – we're good enough to do so," insists O'Connor.
"If we play anywhere near our potential we're good enough. And that's the challenge for us, making sure we're near our best."