Painful memory drives Ulster star Payne
Last week meant a lot as he finally got back to getting some game time, and it proved a particularly meaningful milestone on what has been a challenging and painful journey.
Forty minutes in the friendly against Bayonne was the first proper match situation that Jared Payne had encountered since the then new signing’s world came crashing down last October.
Back then the home game against Treviso was only the Kiwi’s third appearance in an Ulster shirt when after a mere quarter of an hour he departed in agony after rupturing his Achilles and, with that, his playing opportunities in his first season were over.
After spending a sizeable slice of time recovering from the operation that quickly followed, along with the tricky task of rehabbing — and spending large amounts of downtime so far away from home in a wholly unfamiliar part of the world — the chance to tog out at centre in France last Thursday for Ulster’s first warm-up game of the season was equally cathartic and nerve-shredding for the 26-year-old from Tuaranga in New Zealand’s north island.
“It was so good to get a run around and I was a little bit rusty as you can imagine but everything was fine,” he said.
“I just did 40 minutes and I will hopefully get a few more minutes this week (against Leicester Tigers at Ravenhill on Saturday, kick-off 2.30pm) and I might push to 50 or 60 this week.”
Payne accepts that he is still some way off getting back to his best — his ability to attack and create space from either full back or centre attracted Ulster to secure his signature — and that only time will allow that hope to be fulfilled.
In the meantime it’s about taking small steps towards hopefully rediscovering his pre-injury form and pace, though relief is still the primary emotion in the aftermath of his Bayonne outing.
“In a way it’s (playing again) like riding a bike,” he says.
“You know, you don’t really ever forget how and I just had to concentrate on what I’m used to do doing and I just really stuck to that.”
As for his goals this season, Payne is quick to bat away all aspirations other than staying involved on the pitch.
“I haven’t set any (goals),” he says with a knowing smile.
“All I’m trying to do at the moment is get 80 minutes under my belt and I’m building towards that. I want to also get the sharpness back in my game and then take it from there.”
Having fellow Kiwi Mark Anscombe now in charge of the squad has also been a boost as both already know each other from back home and indeed along with John Afoa all three have worked together at stages of their respective careers.
“I worked with Mark in 2008 in Northland and then he moved down to Auckland where obviously I would play against them in the ITM Cup,” Payne added.
“And then there was my time with the Blues along with his time with Auckland so over the years I’ve kept in touch with him a lot so that made it easier for me that he’s come in here. I can understand the ideas that he’s trying to bring in; sort of New Zealand ideas and I can help explain it to the boys and give him a bit of support there.”
He was frustratingly close to playing again at the back end of last season but ended up accepting that he was never likely to have more than a watching brief as a settled Ulster side made it through to the Heineken Cup final which Payne observed from the Twickenham stands.
He wants to move on yet still can’t entirely shake off the shadow of last October’s ruptured Achilles, the worst and most traumatic injury Payne has suffered to date in his career.
“It felt like a guy had kicked me in the back of the leg and I knew the only thing it could be,” he recalls of that night at Ravenhill.
Less than a week after the injury he found himself marking his 26th birthday unable to move without crutches and filling his time stuck in his apartment block in a strange city.
At least he had some of his newly acquired team-mates for company.
“Yes, I remember sitting down with Craig Gilroy (pictured) — the Ulster winger lives in an apartment below Payne’s — with my crutches which wasn’t the condition I had wanted to be in for my birthday,” he said.
His mother and father came over with the former staying on to ensure he was properly looked after during the period when he could barely move and a trip back in December to a friend’s wedding in New Zealand — along with long time companions his moon boot and crutches — also helped.
“All that kept me reasonably positive but, yeah, there were a few dark times,” he said.
“I set myself a lot of small goals and I just focused on them.
“It also helped that I had people to support me and look after me throughout.”
Now it’s hopefully only a case of game on.