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Ireland new-boy Payne out to prove he can fill O'Driscoll's boots

Autumn International : Aviva Stadium, Sat. 5.30pm - Ireland v South Africa

By David Kelly

Jared Payne eases himself into an easy chair but then immediately leans forward, offering an immediate hint as to the character forming the centre of the country's attention this week.

As much as he can glide elegantly on the field - more noticeably from full-back rather than midfield - he brings a languid presence to his movements off the pitch too.

After all, he's waited three years for this moment.

"Nothing is for certain," he smiles. A first season with Ulster ceded to Achilles trouble heightens that sentiment.

Tomorrow against South Africa at the Aviva he will become the 1,065th player to don the Irish international jersey, but not the 1,065th Irishman; therein lies a tale and one he is more than willing to address.

"People are entitled to their opinion," he says with the good nature that has been a hallmark of his graduation from 'project player' to full international.

"They can say what they want. I've been over here for three years now. I'm pretty passionate about it, seeing the environment Ireland have created over the last three years.

"It is something I want to be a part of. I was down at all the games last year with my girlfriend and loved it. To see the atmosphere was awesome. I can't wait to get out there."

He told few back home of his impending promotion.

In truth, since running alongside Robbie Henshaw in training from last Tuesday week, his start appeared to be nailed on, notwithstanding Gordon D'Arcy's return to full fitness.

He did tell his folks though; back home in Papamoa, the picturesque beach suburb in the Bay of Plenty region on New Zealand's north island, Megan and Doug dropped a tear down some 20,000 miles of phone line.

"They were 100 per cent behind me," he says. "Mum and dad have both been over here. They absolutely love it.

"Mum's coming over here next week and she'll be over here until January, so it's going to be great fun having your mum in your own house for two or three months! Dad will be over in December as well.

"They're fully behind it. Mum loves it over here, she's fully behind it and so is dad. They're just happy with what I've done."

Will they get to watch his proudest moment in professional sport?

"Yeah, I imagine it will be on or they'll find it on the internet somewhere," he says. "They're good at doing that.

"I bought mum and dad an iPad and dad's figured it all out, they can usually find stuff, so it's good."

True, their dreams for their boy would have encompassed him wearing the silver fern of the All Blacks; Jared, too, expressed such a wish when he was a kid. Few Kiwis do not in such a rugby-gripped nation.

Sometimes fate twists life's tale, the IRB's regulations help, too; the IRFU are but playing by the rules and would be foolish to ignore them, regardless of some justifiably outraged public opinion.

"If you get annoyed by it, you're only going to beat yourself up over it," is Payne's final word on the matter.

The emotional empathy of the Ireland squad should counter any sense that a player is only exploiting the green jersey for professional principles.

"When I did get named, I was stoked," he reveals.

"I am very proud to be named on the Irish team and I can't wait to get out there.

"I had to make my bed and I always wanted to do a bit of travelling. David Humhpreys (former Ulster chief) talked to me and I thought, 'Why not give it a crack?' Coming over here, you grow the passion to play for Ireland.

"I've just been worrying about my performances for Ulster and when I got called into this camp, I was pretty happy.

"I was just very proud to finally get named in it. And you can't have much more of a Test for your first game, can you?"

Ireland's last Six Nations partnership was a storied one; Brian O'Driscoll and D'Arcy's record-breaking midfield marriage was crowned with championship glory in Paris.

The subsequent Argentinean tour gripped the imagination of few sports fans; but Payne forms one half of what is now, in stark contrast, an utterly inexperienced pairing.

Robbie Henshaw has only played three times for Ireland despite being a fixture in the camp for almost as many years; Payne is vastly more experienced, even though his best days in Ulster white have palpably been at full-back.

Coach Joe Schmidt concedes that while the element of unknown may prove troublesome to South Africa, it is almost as complicated for his own side, who have only experienced the trialling pairing for five training sessions.

While many presumed that Henshaw would wear 13 - O'Driscoll had, after all, anointed him from on high - Payne, refreshingly, concedes that it is just a number.

Indeed, to the disquiet of rugby hipster bores everywhere, whatever about 12 and 13 being indistinguishable, he claims there is little difference between 13 and 15.

"I am happy enough with it at 13," says Payne who, like within most centre pairings, will interchange with his partner.

"I've played there a lot more in my last few years in New Zealand before I came here but getting back into 13 has been nice.

"I have flirted with it a bit last year at Ulster and I have had a few more runs at it this year. I'm comfortable there.

"They're pretty similar. There's a bit more tackling at 13. You have to work on your defence. The attacking lines are a bit tighter.

"You can't get caught up in positions too much, you're there for your set-piece and the game breaks up from there. And you just play."

That's all he's wants now. The chance to play.

"I'd probably be a pretty relaxed kind of individual but I'd imagine a few nerves will slowly creep up," he admits.

"It will be one of the biggest games I've ever played in, so nerves will be there but that's a good thing, you've got to embrace it."

And he is certain that Ireland will embrace him just as warmly.

 

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