Fitzpatrick tips Payne to become key figure for Ireland
Legendary former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick believes that Ulster's Jared Payne will prove to be a valuable addition to the Irish rugby set-up ahead of his expected Test debut this weekend.
Joe Schmidt's side play South Africa, Georgia and Australia during November, with the Springboks first up on Saturday evening, and Kiwi Payne should line out in green for the first time having qualified for Ireland through residency at the beginning of this season.
And the utility back, who played for the Chiefs, Crusaders and Blues in his homeland before joining Ulster in 2011, will be a real asset according to Fitzpatrick.
On a visit to Belfast on behalf of Laureus World Sports Academy, the man who won the World Cup with New Zealand in 1987 and captained them to a 1993 series victory over the Lions said: "As I've said previously, he's maybe one that got away from New Zealand.
"He's got huge talent. Whether he'd have been an All Black or not, who knows?
"It's a hypothetical question but he's taken his opportunities and he deserves his place."
Having only lived in Ireland for three years, some have criticised the IRB law that has allowed Payne to follow a route to Test rugby also taken by the likes of Richardt Strauss, but Fitzpatrick, accustomed to seeing a range of Kiwis represent different nations, does not believe there is any merit to the debate.
"He's qualified so for me there's no argument," said the man who retired in 1997 as the All Blacks' most-capped player of all time.
"He's played here, he's committed himself to Irish rugby and I wish him well."
If Payne is to get a first run out at the Aviva Stadium this weekend, there is every chance it will be in the No 13 jersey just vacated by the recently retired Brian O'Driscoll.
This will be the first home game Ireland have played since the emotional send-off given to their legendary former captain during the Six Nations victory over Italy seven months ago.
Whether the naturalised Payne, or Connacht's Robbie Henshaw, is able to take on the considerable mantle has been the subject of much conjecture but Fitzpatrick, whose grandfather hailed from County Tipperary, believes that Ireland will cope without the talismanic figure of O'Driscoll.
The 51-year-old said: "You're never going to replace a player like O'Driscoll but, at this level, the players are very professional and unfortunately time moves on.
"You can't stand still and Joe Schmidt will have been planning for this. Whether it's Jared Payne who steps in there, who knows?
"If he does, he's got big boots to fill but what a great jersey to have on your back."
While, in some capacity at least, Payne seems certain to represent Ireland this month, the involvement of his Ulster team-mate Rory Best is less clear as a troublesome calf injury threatens to rule him out of Saturday's game.
The injury is another blow for Schmidt, who is already without Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien, Donnacha Ryan and Andrew Trimble amongst others, and Fitzpatrick feels that the loss of the team's most capped hooker would be a sizeable set-back.
"He (Best) has got huge experience," he said. "It would be a massive blow to lose someone like him."
The substantial injury list has certainly lengthened the odds of an Ireland victory over the side ranked second in the world but, recalling how he won his All Black shirt thanks to an injury suffered by the then-captain Andy Dalton, Fitzpatrick feels that those given the chance to start must rise to the occasion.
"I went to the World Cup in 1987 as the number two hooker, the captain got injured, and I played every Test until 1995 so it's a matter of taking your opportunities and believing in yourself.
"Why did the All Blacks beat Ireland last year? Because in the last five minutes they didn't make a mistake. That's the key no matter who plays."
On the same day as the Springboks visit Ireland, Fitzpatrick's home nation will meet England at Twickenham in what many believe is the key clash of the autumn internationals.
On the importance of that contest, he said: "The World Cup is there next year so, for us, it's a psychological thing.
"We got beaten at Twickenham two years ago so for us it has more significance.
"Potentially, if everything goes to plan then next year, we could be playing England in the final.
"If that happens, whether we've lost or won on Saturday, it's quite important."