European Champions Cup Oyonnax v Ulster: Real boost for Ulster as Payne joins Euro squad
Ulster have given the clearest hint yet that Jared Payne is close to playing again after adding him to their European Champions Cup squad.
Though it is unclear if Payne will be directly involved in this Sunday's rearranged Champions Cup trip to Oyonnax, the move to include him in the squad is a huge boost for Ulster's European campaign and also opens the door for the Irish-qualified Kiwi to have a shot at featuring in Joe Schmidt's Six Nations plans at some point.
Whether or not the 30-year-old is ready for the pool game in France, the very fact that he has been added to the larger Ulster squad more than suggests that he will be playing again at some point over this three-game segment of European games, with a return next week more likely.
Ulster face an unusual and highly demanding three weekends of Champions Cup action starting with their trip to Oyonnax on Sunday - the original game was postponed due to November's Paris terror attacks - before travelling to take on unbeaten leaders Saracens and then finishing the pool stages by hosting the French side back in Belfast.
And with qualification from Pool One as a best runner-up a possibility to aim for - should Ulster beat struggling Oyonnax home and away - Les Kiss will be needing all hands to the pump to meet the challenge, so getting Payne involved again is very much a positive development.
Payne has not played since fracturing his foot in Ireland's pool triumph over Romania at the World Cup last September, and his tournament finally came to an end the day before Schmidt's side's pool game with France.
He played in Ireland’s opening two games at the tournament and scored on his World Cup debut against Canada.
The centre, who can also play full-back, has been named as an additional player in Ulster’s European squad, replacing the de-registered Peter Nelson, whose season is over after he also suffered a foot fracture in last month’s PRO12 game against Edinburgh.
The 10-times capped Payne was part of Ireland’s dramatic Six Nations triumph last season and scored a try in their Super Saturday win over Scotland.
His return to fitness would be a considerable fillip for Schmidt who has midfield issues, and may already have to look at a new centre combination with Robbie Henshaw also nursing a hand injury and Ireland’s opening game looming large with Wales visiting Dublin on February 7.
As for Ulster, Payne’s imminent return is very good timing and, indeed, Kiss is believed to also have Craig Gilroy (eye socket) and Darren Cave (shoulder) back in the mix while Stuart Olding (who has been out since last March with a damaged ACL joint) is also close to returning.
However, it appears that prop Wiehahn Herbst will miss the trip to Oyonnax while Louis Ludik and Rory Scholes are also doubts for the game.