Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

Jared Payne has been fighting injury while starring in Ulster's recent triumphs

Main target: Jared Payne is hoping for an Ireland place once he qualifies

It was just after the hour mark when time was called on Jared Payne's evening, and though he actually hadn't directly added to the mounting list of scorers against Treviso, he had made a typically notable impression.

Yes, front-foot rugby is his thing and if space is to be had then Payne tends to find it with his elegant running either allowing the Kiwi make his way through the narrowest of gaps or create the opportunities for others to flourish.

He smiles before pretty much defining his philosophy to what he does for a living.

"You want to speed it up. You try and play this game fast and if you can't play it at a high tempo well, with defences so good these days, you're just going to run into 110kg boots and that's not much fun."

We've pretty much come to expect excellence from the 28-year-old, who can shine at full-back or outside centre, and he didn't disappoint last Saturday night in that 48-0 Heineken Cup drubbing of Treviso at Ravenhill.

Early on, and this time with the number 15 on his back – much has already been made of him being Irish qualified for next season with that vacancy emerging at number 13 in the national set-up – he had glided down the right flank from an Ulster counter-attack from within their own half, his deceptively fast pace wrecking panic in Italian ranks before an off-load to Luke Marshall carved out try number two for Ulster.

There were other moments too when he drew tacklers like moths to a bright light only to feint one way before dinking the ball through for white-shirted chasers to hit the space into which it would be rolling.

It all looked effortless but was far from it. After all Payne has been living with the irritation, and downright discomfort, of a niggly groin problem. He says he's looking forward to shaking it off and you wonder that if this is not an entirely fit Payne then just what damage he will do when fully firing.

"I wasn't too tired," he said regarding being hauled ashore in the second-half.

"The groin is an ongoing issue. I probably hurt it in the first couple of minutes, but that's part of life. You've just got to hopefully grin and bear it as long as you can.

"It's one of these things you can hardly ever play rugby at 100% but, yeah, it would just be great to get out there running freely. If I can get over this groin thing then hopefully I can start playing some better rugby.

"It's holding me back a bit at the moment and I just want to get out there and injury free and I'll be happy," Payne adds.

Inevitably – you can sense he just knows that no interview will now side-step this issue – the conversation turns towards the impending retirement of Brian O'Driscoll and Payne's candidature to be one of his frontline successors along with the requirement for him to also nail down the outside centre starting block at Ulster.

"I'm hearing I'm getting loaned to Leinster and all sorts of stuff and it's fun to hear all these stories," he jokes before contemplating the situation domestically.

"It's a good team once we've got everyone firing in this backline and when we get Tommy (Bowe) back and with everyone injury free it will be interesting to see who we go with in the backline.

"I just have to try and play as well as I can wherever I'm put and hope I get picked when that team is announced," he says, wielding all the diplomacy he can muster while then tackling the hot potato of being a potential Ireland outside centre.

"Obviously they are pretty big shoes to fill and there'll never be another Brian O'Driscoll. He's been a great servant to Ireland and a world class player.

"Yes, there's a spot there and someone's going to take it and if I'm playing well enough in that spot it would be an awesome honour. It would just be a massive honour to get anywhere near that team," is Payne's take on it all.

Fair point, in this game nothing is certain, which leads him towards contemplating the fact that Ulster just have to back up last Saturday's win when they go to Treviso.

"We haven't really backed up any big performances since I've been here really and it's something we're challenging ourselves to do this week.

"They had obviously had a tough week with losing their coach and all the uproar and that sort of thing, but at home they'll be a different beast and they'll come out firing and it'll be tougher there than it was here."

Fair enough, we have been warned.

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