Cool-headed Jared Payne is thriving under intense pressure at Ulster
Jared Payne is certainly feeling a difference around the place now as the games run out while Ulster's gaze intensifies on trying to procure a home semi-final.
Top four having been achieved, the buzzword now is a top-two finish to bring that last-four clash to the Kingspan. Even though the hype is definitely building, Payne is laid-back enough to pay little attention to the growing pressure to perform.
"The carrot you've been playing for all year is now getting closer," he admits in his usual laconic manner. "You just prepare for every game the same, but there is an extra edge to these ones (Munster and Glasgow, Ulster's last two regulation season opponents) as they're above you," added the Six Nations winner in Dublin yesterday.
As to the pressure getting to him and longer-term thoughts of staying fit for the autumn's World Cup, the 29-year-old Kiwi shrugs before swatting away any notions that he gets jittery about things.
"It's a challenge," he said. "But I think the older you get you just worry about what happens week to week. If you look too far into the future you're going to forget about tomorrow, so for me personally it's really not an issue."
Beating Leinster last time out to secure a top-four finish while extinguishing the southern province's season was a different matter though. When asked how he felt at getting the better of the side who have heaped so much misery on Ulster, Payne smiles and makes it known that his initial reaction was, well, not really fit for public consumption.
"It was a pretty tough game and then afterwards it was just nice to know we'd secured a semi-final spot but at the same time we've done nothing yet," he says. "We've won nothing and we have to keep our feet on the ground."
At least he does know what it takes to win after his part in the dramatic finish to the Six Nations and the excellent partnership he has forged for Ireland with Connacht's Robbie Henshaw.
"It's all worked out pretty well, hasn't it?" Payne states of his first season of international rugby since qualifying to play on residency grounds and taking ownership of the shirt vacated by Brian O'Driscoll.
"I'm happy to have won the Six Nations and hopefully I'll get something now with Ulster over the next few weeks."
As for having made the seamless switch from starring at full-back for Ulster to now togging out in the number 13 shirt for both his adopted province and country, Payne again makes no big deal of the situation.
"I think I've played both positions enough, you've just got to remember individual roles and if there are any special plays you are doing but apart from that rugby is really a pretty simple sport," is the familiar take he puts on things.
"Once you get through a few phases you just try and play what's in front of you and try to score a few tries."
It's surely not quite that simple, but Payne makes it look effortless which is a testament to his own ability at dealing with the lack of time and space in the midfield compared to being at full-back.
One area that has been hugely encouraging for Ulster has been the partnership he has built with Darren Cave, the player who has shunted one position in to allow Payne play at outside centre.
"Cavey's been in wonderful form and is one of the most consistent performers for Ulster. The last few weeks we've gelled pretty well and personally we've felt comfortable together and hopefully we can keep going the way we are," is Payne's tribute to his midfield partner.
Yes, the pressure is growing but Jared's not for turning.
MUNSTER tighthead prop BJ Botha wants to prove his worth to the province and extend his stay in Limerick beyond the end of the year.
The former Springbok was handed an unorthodox six-month extension which expires at the end of December, but wants to continue beyond that point.
On Saturday, the 25-times capped World Cup winner returns to his former home as Munster travel to Ulster and Botha knows that this could be his last shot at silverware in a red jersey and wants to make the most of it.
"I put myself under more pressure in that sense," he said.
"You think about your career and how quickly it goes.
"You don't want to let anything pass you by so I put myself under pressure and even more so now trying to put in those performances and try to put in that extra little bit of work for the rest of this season, and progressing into next season and to the end of the year to show you can hold it at this level and maybe even better."