Belfast Telegraph

Irish Lion Payne relishing chance to put on show in New Zealand

By Jonathan Bradley

As the only one of the three Ulstermen named in yesterday's British and Irish Lions squad for the summer tour to New Zealand not on a scheduled day off yesterday, Jared Payne got the full force of the squad's congratulations as they gathered to watch the much-anticipated announcement at Kingspan Stadium.

While it wasn't quite champagne corks popping when the native Kiwi had his name read out along with Rory Best and Iain Henderson, he was quickly surrounded by cheering team-mates and doused with the bottled water that just moments before had been a part of lunch.

Looking slightly bemused by it all, the 31-year-old admitted that his selection had come as a huge surprise.

"It's a big shock and you don't get too many of them these days," he said.

"It's come out of the blue for me. I'm hugely proud and over the moon but surprised as well.

"I got a text from mum and dad and the partner there and they're over the moon too as you can imagine. It hasn't really sunk in just yet."

Having sustained a serious kidney injury in November and missed three months of action, Payne, who made his international debut for his adopted nation in 2014, only featured in the final round of this season's Six Nations.

As such, while there were selections like that of Sam Warburton as captain that were flagged well in advance, the former Blues and Crusaders man was considerably more unexpected.

Indeed just two weeks ago, Payne said he believed he was "nowhere near" the squad.

For coach Warren Gatland, who ironically did not always see the versatile back's considerable talents, it was a choice that had a good deal of personal history.

"I coached Jared Payne when I was coaching Waikato and I didn't renew his contract," revealed the former Ireland supremo.

"He left to go play for Northland, then went to the Blues and ended up in Ireland.

"Now he's a Lion. To see that is outstanding."

Having been part of the side that claimed an historic first Irish victory over the All Blacks in Chicago last year, Payne found those in his homeland quick to congratulate him over the success when he recently took his young son Jack for a first visit to see where his father grew up.

With the first game of the tour in Toll Stadium, Whangarei - just over 200 miles from where he grew up in Tauranga - and the first Test set for Eden Park, where he played for the Blues before moving to Ulster, it will be something of a trip down memory lane.

With the locale sure to see plenty of familiar faces in attendance at the games, Payne just hopes his family and friends are as magnanimous now as they were after Soldier Field.

"Hopefully a few friendly faces and a few mates won't turn their back on me and hate me too much," he laughed. "It's going to be interesting.

"Rugby is in the blood back home so it's going to be pretty tough. The whole country will be behind them so it's a massive challenge we'll be facing."

Belfast Telegraph

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