Barakat thrilled with selection headache as Payne returns
Jared Payne is expected to return to action against Saracens on Saturday (3.15pm kick-off) to boost Ulster's bid for a Champions Cup quarter-final spot.
The Irish international has been out of action since fracturing his foot during the World Cup last autumn with the original prognosis predicting two months on the sidelines.
His recovery has been slower than expected but the naturalised Kiwi was added to Ulster's European squad last Thursday.
Having been back on the paddock this week, should the 30-year-old come through tomorrow's training without reaction, he will be named in the side to face the pool leaders.
Ulster are currently in second place, with a contest against Oyonnax to come following the trip to Allianz Park, and have a real chance of progressing to the last-eight as one of three best runners-up even if they cannot overhaul Saturday's opponents.
With Ireland's Six Nations campaign set to begin with the visit of Wales on February 7, Payne's return is a timely boost not just for Les Kiss but for Joe Schmidt.
The 10-times capped Tauranga native was Schmidt's outside centre of choice throughout last season's victorious Six Nations, where he forged a fine partnership with Connacht's Robbie Henshaw.
A classy operator with ball in hand, and having become something of a lynchpin in defence, Payne kept his place for the World Cup and impressed in his two games at the tournament.
With Luke Marshall having excelled in Ulster's 13 jersey throughout this season, the former Auckland Blue could start this weekend at full-back.
Louis Ludik is receiving treatment for an abductor strain, and with Craig Gilroy set for a return to the wing, Kiss' options at 15 are limited.
Payne is no stranger to the position having played there for the majority of his career before making the move into midfield during recent seasons.
With Marshall and Stuart McCloskey having played so well, and Payne now available, Ulster's centre options are set to be plentiful.
Darren Cave is also back in full training after suffering an AC joint injury against Edinburgh at the start of December, and is expected to be back next week, while Stuart Olding is also readying himself for a return that could come with the 'A' side this weekend.
Ulster's defence coach Joe Barakat says it's a pleasing selection headache to have.
"We have all those guys back in training, they're all in the mix," he said. "How we choose to select them, and whenever we need to select them, we're in a good position.
"In previous weeks we've been really light. We've a couple of guys in our centres that are doing a fantastic job but are running into the ground a bit as well.
"The guys who have been playing are going to be pretty hard to move out of those positions."
While Nick Williams will not play this weekend due to concussion, lock Alan O'Connor is fit again after suffering through the same ailment and prop Wiehahn Herbst is back after a calf injury.
"Having Al back and Wiehahn back is a boost for everybody because we're getting closer to our full team," added Barakat.
Oyonnax prop Stan Wright was last night handed a three-game ban for a dangerous tackle on Chris Henry in his side's loss to Ulster on Sunday. The former Leinsterman will be available to play again on February 1, meaning he will miss the return game against Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium next Saturday.