O'Connor believes experience on French turf can help Blues stand up to Castres
Head coach expects battling forwards to fill void left by O'Brien as Leinster look to become masters of own destiny
THE implications of the dramatic endgame of Leinster's defeat to Northampton Saints come into sharp focus at the Stade Pierre Antoine tomorrow afternoon.
Had Jamie Heaslip managed to hang onto the ball and make the pass he intended to the overlap outside him, the Blues would most likely have coasted in for a game-winning try.
Instead, the ball went to the deck and the Leinster captain watched through his hands as Jamie Elliott raced down the field for the try that denied the hosts even a losing bonus point.
That moment removed the three-time European champions' breathing space. If they had managed back-to-back wins over the English side, then a bonus point at the notoriously difficult French venue would have kept them on track, while it would also have knocked Castres out of the tournament.
Now, they must win to remain in control of their own destiny against the French champions, who can give themselves an outside shot of qualifying for the last eight with a victory.
Win two games and go through has been the mantra Matt O'Connor has been repeating to his troops all week as they prepare for this clash.
Beat Castres away and the Ospreys at home and the quarter-final berth is secure.
It is a more comfortable position than they faced a year ago when they lost twice to Clermont and were left chasing their tails thereafter, but winning both games won't be easy, particularly tomorrow.
There is comfort in the fact that they know what they have to do and don't have to rely on external factors, but the loss of Sean O'Brien is a major blow.
Leinster and Ireland are going to have to do without the Tullow Tank for the medium term at least and they need to find a way of compensating for his absence.
Thus, Jordi Murphy (right) faces the biggest test of his career to date in the No 7 jersey and the Ireland management will be watching the Blackrock tyro's performance closely. Elsewhere, Heaslip, Mike McCarthy, Sean Cronin and Jack McGrath will all be tasked with picking up the ball-carrying slack.
Leinster will undoubtedly miss O'Brien, but Castres are without the two men who make them tick, with Rory Kockott and Antonie Claassen injured.
Still, they have France internationals Remi Tales at fly-half and Brice Dulin at full-back, while the pack contains plenty of big men who will need no second asking to get stuck and will look to target the visitors at the set-piece.
The memory of their defeat at the RDS back in November should rankle too, as Castres managed to put it up to Leinster on their own turf, but left with nothing.
They are notoriously hard to break down and stingy on their own patch, but Leinster have plenty of game-breakers in their backline if Jimmy Gopperth can give them field position and the pack can secure possession.
The New Zealander has been given the nod at fly-half ahead of Ian Madigan for his first Heineken Cup game in France and a lot falls on his shoulders as he looks to move the big Castres forwards around, kick his goals and get the backline moving.
Discipline will be a key factor for O'Connor's men given Castres' reliance on penalties for their scores, but they will have a go when presented with a chance, so the defence will need to be tighter than it was in Galway last weekend.
The Australian is backing his side's experience to get them over the line.
"The guys have been to France a lot. There is a lot of provincial and Test experience of playing in France," he said.
"You have got to get your head around it. You have got to understand what you have to deliver on across the course of the contest. A lot of those things are really hard physical things. But, if you can match them there, you're in with a chance."
Leinster made life hard for themselves at Lansdowne Road last month, but they have rarely taken the easy route to success during their recent European purple patch.
If they want to remain in control of their own destiny against the Ospreys next Friday night, they have to win here and that should focus the minds.
The loss of O'Brien made things that bit harder, but O'Connor will be hoping others step up.
CASTRES -- B Dulin; R Grosso, S Bai, R Lamerat, M Evans; R Tales (capt), C Garcia; Y Forestier, MA Rallier, K Wihongi; R Gray, C Samson; M Babillot, I Diarra, P Faasalele. Reps: B Mach, M Lazar, A Peikrishvili, B Desroche, Y Caballero, J Tomas, D Kirkpatrick, M Garvey.
LEINSTER -- R Kearney; D Kearney, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Gopperth, E Reddan; J McGrath, S Cronin, M Ross; D Toner, M McCarthy; K McLaughlin, J Murphy, J Heaslip (capt). Reps: A Dundon, J O'Connell, M Moore, L Cullen, S Jennings, I Boss, I Madigan, Z Kirchner.
REF -- N Owens (WRU)
CASTRES V LEINSTER,
LIVE, SKY SPORTS RED BUTTON, TOMORROW, 12.45