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Payne hopes to have last say on the master

By Niall Crozier

If Ulster win, Drico's illustrious career will be over; he will have played his last match as a professional footballer.

Being pitted against the man whose green number 13 shirt he may find himself filling next season, Payne is conscious of the occasion. When he speaks of the player who in his 15 years as a top-flight rugby player captained Leinster, Ireland and the Lions, there is no mistaking the respect in his voice.

"When I was very young and growing up in New Zealand I probably didn't even know where Ireland was," Payne said. "At five or six I don't think I even had a hero in rugby. As a kid you're just running around enjoying things.

"But then as you get older, you progress a bit. And then you start playing professionally and that's when you become aware of what others are doing. So I knew about Brian O'Driscoll coming through the age groups. And then you start hearing more and more about him and you realise the guy's just a special talent.

"I think he's held in the same regard in New Zealand as he is here. He's been a great footballer, so it doesn't matter where you are – north or south of the equator people know about him and respect him for that."

As one of the game's purists, who loves to see the game played fast and well, Payne's recollection of the Ulster-Leinster inter-pro on May 2 is that it was no classic.

"Neither side created much that night. We didn't and they didn't. But it wasn't a backs' game; it was one that the forwards dominated," he said.

Ulster were reduced to 14 men after just 16 minutes when loose-head Tom Court was dismissed for a tip tackle on Leinster lock Devin Toner. At that moment the game, as a spectacle, was ruined.

Payne explained: "We had to change the way we were playing a bit after losing a man and they were without two at one stage so they had to change things for a while, too. That doesn't make for a very attractive game.

"It was a bit of a stalemate, but that's the way rugby is sometimes. You've just got to read the game and the way it's going and play your part by adapting to that. Last time I think both sets of backs just nullified each other."

As far as Payne is concerned, what happened two weeks ago has no bearing on tonight.

"It doesn't count for anything," he insisted. "No-one is living on that result. This is a different match – different day, different players.

Once the whistle goes on Saturday night you're into playing for 80 minutes so you just put your best foot forward, do your best to keep your own house in order, do the best you can for your team and hope that's enough."

He knows Ulster's record in Dublin encounters – one win since 1999 – is unlikely to have cost Leinster's players too many sleepless nights. He knows, too, that in each of the past three seasons, Ulster's season has ended in defeat at the hands of their oldest adversaries. As he sees it, Ulster must now turn the pain of those losses into something positive.

"You can say you've learned from finals you've played in before, but if you have then sooner or later you have to put the things you have learned into practice and actually win it," he said.

"Is this group ready to do that? Well, we'll know on Saturday night. We're certainly confident. Leinster are favourites, so there isn't too much pressure on us since we're playing the number one team."

Even though it's a one-off, winners-survive-losers-exit game, Payne's approach is the same as ever.

"For me that doesn't change anything," he said. "I play every game with the same attitude – you want to win it, no matter what. You go out with the intention of giving everything, week after week, and you get your enjoyment from knowing that you've done that."

And he reckons last weekend's display by a makeshift Ulster side in beating Munster in Limerick has set just the right tone for tonight.

"I thought the boys were outstanding," he enthused. "To go down there and front up the way they did was wicked. Everyone wrote them off, but they got together, tight, as a unit and rolled Munster which was awesome.

"This weekend's team can take a lesson from them as the situation is pretty similar – no-one's expecting us to beat Leinster down there so we've got to front up, stay tight and show the sort of character they did. If we do, then hopefully we can get a result."

Belfast Telegraph

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