Kiwi Jared Payne is 'buzzing' to clash with old friends on his Lions debut
Ulster ace set for Lions bow against the Blues
Ulster's Jared Payne will be in familiar surroundings when he makes his British and Irish Lions debut against the Blues in Auckland tomorrow morning.
The native Kiwi, who has been a key cog for Ireland since qualifying on residency in 2014, was born in Tauranga on the north island - just 125 miles from Eden Park, the most famous of New Zealand's many rugby stadiums.
While Payne began his somewhat nomadic Super Rugby career with the Chiefs - his spell in Waikato ironically ended when now Lions coach Warren Gatland did not renew his contract - it was with the Blues that he last played in his homeland before moving to Ulster in 2011.
Payne was initially down to make his bow in the red jersey during Saturday's tour opener but had to sacrifice his place on the bench due to a persistent calf niggle. After the injury-plagued season endured by the 31-year-old, the news will have sparked concern back home, but he has shaken off the knock to start at outside centre for Gatland's men as they look to make a more convincing statement in game number two after the laborious win over a New Zealand Provincial Barbarians side last weekend.
And starting alongside his Irish colleague Robbie Henshaw in midfield, it will be something of a homecoming for Payne (8.35am kick-off).
The versatile Ireland back is looking forward to a debut that will be a reunion of sorts.
"I'm buzzing," the usually reserved centre admitted. "I can't wait to run out in front of a packed Eden Park and get stuck in.
"It'll be fun playing against a few friends."
Payne continued: "You approach it like any other game, you might get a shot on them or they might get a shot on you.
"There'll be a few jokes in the bottom of the ruck but other than that, it's just another game and you have to make sure you do your job."
After the season he has had, just getting back out there will surely come as something of a relief.
Due to a handful of injuries, the most serious of which was a damaged kidney that kept him out for three months, Payne played only 10 times for Ulster and a further four for Ireland.
"There always are (doubts) when you're coming back from injury," he admitted. "You never know how the body is going to respond, it's one of those unfortunate things as a rugby player. You can't control everything.
"But I'm happy to be here, putting the jersey on and getting a crack."
The coach, too, is keen to take advantage of some of his local knowledge in a stadium that will also host the first and final Tests.
"The thing for Jared is just getting out on the pitch," said his fellow Kiwi Gatland. "He's been struggling the last few weeks. He's had this calf niggle that has been worrying for him.
"Given his experience and his leadership, (he has an) ability to express that calmness to our squad having played at Eden Park before and for the opposition too.
"One of the reasons Jared Payne was picked on this tour was his experience and experience in New Zealand with the Blues."
By pairing him with Leinster's Henshaw, Gatland was able to reprise the centre partnership that accounted for the All Blacks when Ireland proved triumphant in Chicago last November.
"It was a chance for us to get Jared in there and look at that combination," he added. "He hasn't trained a lot, so to have him passed fit there was a chance to see that.
"(Payne) has played a lot of games for Ireland that they've won. He's been one of the key components of their success and Robbie Henshaw has been outstanding in the last year or two."
Payne will be joined in the match-day 23 by his Ulster team-mates Rory Best and Iain Henderson, both of whom will be on the bench after starting the opener.
With Best having produced a solid display in the first hit-out, his main rival for the starting hooker's job in the Test series, Ken Owens, will captain the first of the midweek sides.
"In terms of Ken, he has worked really hard on his recovery and it's great to have him available," said Gatland. "He has captained the Scarlets and has assumed a leadership role within the camp. It is a great opportunity for him. We are expecting a big crowd at Eden Park. It will be the first of three matches there for us and we know the atmosphere will be outstanding.
"We are hoping for good weather and are expecting a tough, fast and open game.
"We have a few work-ons from last weekend and we know we need to be more clinical. We created some good opportunities but didn't see them through and that is something we want to improve on."