Belfast Telegraph

Returning Ulster ace Jared Payne not expecting a call-up from Joe Schmidt

By Michael Sadlier

The signs aren't promising by the time Jared Payne arrives in the room. His time is short and his eagerness to be somewhere else is only added to by his decision not to sit down for what, for him, is clearly a case of ordeal by media.

Knowing that he is the day's star attraction, as the questions about taking on Toulon again are thrown about the place, also isn't comfortable for the Irish-qualified Kiwi who awaits the inevitable queries about his chances of adding to his first Ireland cap which was won last November against South Africa and ended with the 29-year-old hobbling off.

And that was the last time Payne was seen on a match-day situation after his foot injury ruled him out of taking any further part in last autumn's clean-sweep and of being involved with Ulster until last Sunday's ordinary cameo off the bench in the struggle that was the 24-20 result at Treviso.

Matters Ireland feature prominently with the Six Nations squad soon to be named and, naturally enough, Payne is asked about his chances of making his way back into the forefront of Joe Schmidt's thoughts.

After being constantly asked about his hopes of wearing an Ireland shirt ahead of finally qualifying to play over the summer, Payne looks truly weary as his inquisitors now hit him about the likelihood of there being a second cap in the Six Nations.

"That's a long way away," Payne says rather disingenuously, though it seems he is referring to his remote chances of featuring for the national side any time soon while being selected at full-back today may also offer more than a clue.

"I've played next to no rugby and I can't expect to be anywhere near that team (Ireland). I've just got to try and get my foot right and get a few more minutes on the field (for Ulster)," he states which appears to effectively rule him out of expecting much in the way of Six Nations action.

His combination with Robbie Henshaw - with the Connacht man at inside centre - in the arm-wrestle of a win over the Springboks seemed to function effectively in what was a huge defensive display and what a shame it was that Payne's injury denied him the chance to then take part in the stirring result over the Wallabies, which was a much more free-flowing game and would have undoubtedly suited the way Payne likes to play.

"It was a bit disappointing to not be on the field as the final whistle blew, but it was still a great day and I couldn't have asked for any more," he diplomatically says of his first taste of international rugby against the Boks.

And though he has been down at other national get-togethers which Schmidt has organised, all Payne has been able to do is observe but not take part in pitch work while doubtless watching his rivals - with Henshaw now fancied as Ireland's starting 13 - put down their claims while his hopes have been stalled.

The foot injury is up next for discussion and his frustration is all too evident, robbing him of vital game-time with Ulster with last Sunday's bench appearance being his first in a provincial shirt since October's Champions Cup defeat to Toulon in Belfast.

"I'm still trying to figure it out," he says of his troublesome left foot.

"I just pushed off it a bit funny (against South Africa) and I think I sprained something and it seems to have taken forever.

"I've never had a mid-foot sprain, or whatever, but it's just age and the game these days," he says with a nervous laugh.

"Now I've got to see how the foot will handle (in games) and take it from there.

"It's still a bit ginger," he adds, "But hopefully it will ease up after getting more minutes on the pitch."

As for taking on the mighty Toulon at their Stade Felix Mayol home, Payne seems to be of the opinion that playing on the shores of the Mediterranean in January will surely be more preferable than slogging it out in the rain and wind that is the staple climatic diet currently around these parts.

For him, the game is for playing in largely decent weather and, not for the first time, he talks about his hopes for a fast-flowing match with plenty of opportunities for handling the ball and running with it.

"I've no idea what's happening in the group," he surprisingly insists when Ulster's situation at the foot of Pool Three is thrown his way.

"We're pretty much out of it bar a few wildcard predications," he then adds after doubtless picking up on the bemusement that his initial answer caused to those gathered around him.

"It's a great stadium they've got down there and, with a bit of sun, we'll maybe throw the ball about a bit and see what happens."

Mention is made of Toulon's Kiwi contingent with former Auckland Blues team-mate Ali Williams, who retires at the end of the season, and also coming up through age grade rugby back in New Zealand with Rudi Wulf, who he also played with at the Blues, but Payne seems just keen to move on instead of providing any nostalgic insight.

"I'm just looking forward to it. There's not too much pressure on our backs and we can just actually get stuck in and have a bit of fun."

It leads to a further explanation of the Payne philosophy.

"As I say we'll just go down and play rugby for the fun of it and enjoy the weekend."

And with that, having presumably said more than he had intended, Payne is on his way.

Belfast Telegraph

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