Dan Carter plays for injury-hit Perpignan against Stade Francais on Saturday sure that his mettle will be tested by opposite number Juan Martin Hernandez, the Parisian club’s Argentine playmaker.
Hernandez was one of the tournament’s stand-out performers at the 2007 Rugby World Cup where he was a lynchpin behind his country’s third-place finish.
Although he often plays at full-back for Stade Francais, who also have France outside-half Lionel Beauxis on their books, Hernandez remains an important cog wherever he plays, a fact Carter has been quick to acknowledge.
"Hernandez is a very good player," said the All Black, who has seen club rivals for the outside-half shirt, South African Steve Meyer and Frenchman Nicolas Laharrague, ruled out through injury.
"He has played exceptionally well over the last three seasons with his club and with the Pumas.
"He has all the qualities. His main strength is his kicking game. He knows how to do everything, from drop-goals to little chips over the defence to playing the percentage game with his out-of-hand kicking.
"We will have to put him under pressure. I love this kind of confrontation against players who are really at the top. It’s a great challenge to live up to," said Carter, returning from an Achilles tendon injury after missing European Cup games against Ospreys and Treviso.
"Stade Francais are an excellent team. If you don’t play well against the Parisians, you can ship 50 points. We know it will be very tough."
Perpignan failed to qualify for the European Cup quarter-finals but stand third in the Top 14, two points adrift of Stade Francais and five shy of leaders Toulouse.
It will be the Catalan club’s second game against the Parisian highrollers at the Stade de France, with a sell-out crowd of 80,000 expected for an afternoon’s entertainment that also includes pom-pom girls, fireworks and an exhibition by strongmen.
"What can you say about Carter and Hernandez that has not already been said?" asked Perpignan coach Jacques Brunel.
"They are two exceptional players who possess all technical and physcial qualities.
"I’m convinced that Hernandez is more of a full-back than an outside-half. It seems to me that he has more input in a game when he plays at full-back. I find him more dangerous when he has a little bit more space to express his counter-attacking abilities.
"Generally, he’s more of a finisher for me while Carter is more of an organiser."
Another All Black, albeit a former star in the shape of Tana Umaga, is set for a shock return to the paddock after naming himself in the Toulon squad for Friday’s game against Mont-de-Marsan, also struggling at the bottom of the Top 14.
Umaga’s failure as a coach to mould a successful Top 14 side at big-spending Toulon this season has led to the hiring of former French winger and Sale coach Philippe Saint-Andre as sporting director for next season.
But Umaga, whose last competitive match was on August 11, 2007, in Wellington, says he is looking forward to resuming his playing career and that outspoken club president Mourad Boudjellal had not pushed him into a return.
"It’s my decision. I want to be able to say that I did everything I could to help this club and this team," said 35-year-old Umaga, who won 74 caps in his eight-year international career with New Zealand.
Fixtures – Friday
Toulon v Mont-de-Marsan
Clermont Auvergne v Bayonne, Montpellier v Dax, Biarritz v Toulouse, Castres v Brive, Bourgoin v Montauban, Stade Francais v Perpignan