Time for Leinster rivals to lay down pivotal marker
Gopperth poised for chance to tighten grip on No 10 role against Castres but duel with Madigan has no end in sight
STEPPING into Jonathan Sexton's shoes was never going to be easy and perhaps that's why Leinster appear to have decided that four feet are better than two.
It hasn't quite been week on, week off but Matt O'Connor has been judicious in his use of the two fly-halves at his disposal this season, with both Jimmy Gopperth and Ian Madigan afforded almost equal amounts of game time to state their case.
The Ireland international has spent some time filling in at inside centre and full-back, but he has managed to start the same number of games as his New Zealand rival in the No 10 jersey despite being unavailable for a number of Leinster's clashes this season.
Each has had two starts apiece in the Heineken Cup, while Madigan has been given the nod in three of the four interprovincial games.
Gopperth started the two opening rounds in Europe, earning a man-of-the-match gong for his performance in the first clash with this week's opponents Castres, but the Dubliner earned the jersey back for the Northampton clashes last month and was particularly impressive at Franklin's Gardens.
Whether the constant threat to one's starting spot helps confidence is questionable, but the players will talk about being kept on their toes by the threat on the bench.
After a start each over Christmas, the question of who to select comes across O'Connor's desk again this week and the early indications are that the 30-year-old former Newcastle pivot will be given the nod for Sunday's daunting task in Castres.
As the Australian head coach spoke about looking after the ball and playing in the right areas in the aftermath of Saturday's hard-fought win over Connacht, there was a sense he was talking directly about his half-backs.
Madigan's flat-to-the-line style, turn of pace and penchant for risk makes him the darling of the RDS faithful and won him Leinster's Player of the Year award last season, but away from home it could be Gopperth's more traditional values that will win favour with his coach.
Given the controversial five-day turnaround between the province's remaining Pool 1 games, it is likely that his rival will come back in to a much-changed side the following weekend but, for the battle against the French champions facing one last shot to save their European season, it is the New Zealander who holds the edge early in the week.
Richie Murphy works alongside both players as Leinster's skills and kicking coach and has been watching their duel closely.
While he former fly-half who spent November working as part of the national coaching ticket was not about to start playing favourites in public yesterday, he insisted that the duo are more similar than many give them credit for.
Neither has an easy job to do in replacing Sexton and that, perhaps, is why they are rotated so often and certainly Murphy appears to believe they have some improving to do yet.
"It's very tight between the two of them," he said. "It's a hard one for me, they are two players who are very similar in how they play the game, it's nip and tuck and again this week decisions have to be made on who is going to start and again that's very tight.
"The two lads have done a reasonable job for us when they've been in there, Johnny 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."
Gopperth did himself a big favour with his impactful turn off the bench at the Sportsground. He kicked his goals, but also provided the controversial pass for Gordon D'Arcy's game-settling try.
There is a balance to be struck, however, as nobody wants to become known as a supersub and the New Zealander chuckles at the concept.
"We'll have to see," Gopperth said. "As I say, whatever mix they go with, Mads and I complement each other pretty well and whatever the opportunity is we'll give our best to the team."
It shouldn't be forgotten that he is the man head-hunted by Joe Schmidt when he realised that Sexton would depart, a player who had the opportunity to play at a higher level than the Championship last season but stuck with Newcastle to help them come back up.
By keeping Madigan out of the jersey before November, he became a thorn in Schmidt's side as Madigan looked rusty when he came on as a replacement in the autumn internationals. The former Blackrock starlet has worked his way back in and now has a lot more game time under his belt going into the Six Nations.
Still, he'll want more minutes to impress and develop, as Paddy Jackson continues to do at Ulster, while Sexton himself will be hoping for an injury-free run.
Both contenders for the Leinster fly-half slot have been at pains not to get sucked into a war of words and have been lauding the other all season as they go for the same shirt.
"Mads and I will push each other every day. It can only be beneficial for the team for it to be like that," Gopperth added. "It keeps us on our toes as well because as a player it's always good to have competition.
"There are still things I want to work on in my game but I'm just happy to be in this environment. I think being in this environment makes any player play to the best of their ability and that's all we need."
With the Heineken Cup pool at their mercy despite a somewhat stuttering season, O'Connor will be hoping that one of his fly-half hopefuls will firmly take a grip of proceedings and lay down a serious claim.
The early indications are that it's Gopperth's shot at the title this weekend, but this battle still has a way to run yet before victory is declared.