Ulster star putting up with Payne and cold
Published 27/03/2013 | 08:00
Jared Payne doesn't like the cold weather currently disrupting life in this part of the world –and with very good reason.
The New Zealander reckons our climate may have played a part in the injuries he has suffered since joining Ulster on a three-year contract in 2011.
Prior to that his fitness record was well-nigh exemplary. Now? Let's just say it has been less than perfect. And the former Auckland Blues star admits that gets him down.
He was a mere two-and-a-half matches into life as an Ulster player when a snapped Achilles tendon brought a painful end to his 2011-12 season.
Able to resume last August, the 2012-13 campaign has seen him produce exactly the sort of form which persuaded Ulster that the 27-year-old Kiwi – who has represented the nation currently enjoying the status of world champions as an Under 21s and Sevens player – was worth bringing to Belfast.
From the first competitive match of the season through to the Christmas-week victory over Leinster at Ravenhill, the only game Payne missed was the December 2 date with Scarlets in Llanelli.
As well as playing superbly both in defence and as a creator, Payne underlined his all-round ability with half-a-dozen tries during that 14-match run.
He was not even fully fit, a fact he reveals by saying: "I'd been carrying an injury for about two months."
But another try-scoring appearance against Glasgow in the Heineken Cup at Ravenhill on January 11 proved to be the straw that broke this particular camel's back.
Forced to concede defeat to his nagging groin strain injury, he missed the next five matches against Castres, Ospreys, Zebre, Glasgow and Treviso. Was it just a coincidence that, in Payne's absence, Ulster won only two of that quintet?
Sidelined and frustrated, he went home to New Zealand.
"It was good to go back, get some sun and get warm again," smiles the bearded full-back who is equally comfortable at centre.
"My mum looked after me for a while so that was nice."
Ah, the recuperative power of a mum's TLC.
His mother came to the rescue in the latter stages of 2011, too, travelling to Belfast to help him cope in the wake of surgery at the start of his long recovery from that Achilles tendon tear. He does feel that the Ulster chill has perhaps contributed to his injury problems.
"I think it must be the cold weather," says the Tauranga-born player who will be Irish-qualified at the end of next season.
"I never had too bad a run back home so I reckon this cold weather must do something to me."
While Payne smiles as he says that, one feels he believes there is something to his theory. He is not a grumbler, however.
"It's all part of it," is his description of the Ulster climate.
He refuses to draw any parallels between his own unavailability and Ulster's recent re-railment. In his eyes, his absence was just one part of a much bigger problem.
"Collectively we haven't been playing quite as well as we should be and the boys have been struggling a bit. But that's not down to any one player," he insists.
"When you count in the injuries there must have been 20 of us out during the Six Nations and if you take that number out of a squad, any team is going to notice it.
"It would be unfair to blame the guys who came in for the results. They haven't done a bad job as individuals.
"When you're losing games, usually it's about the collective.
"We're all pretty keen to put things right as a team. Everybody is keen to improve and turn these results around."
Payne is confident that Ulster can regain their momentum and revitalise their flagging season, starting away to Leinster on Saturday.
"You play to put yourselves in a position where you can win things and that's where we are. We've given ourselves the opportunity. We're in the running for two trophies so it should be an exciting few weeks," he says.
Those who were concerned to see Payne in apparent pain in the closing stages of Friday night's Murrayfield defeat will have been delighted at Ulster's insistence that there is no problem.
As for the player himself, his view at this stage is: "It's just good to be able to get back out there and play again. Hopefully I can have an injury-free finish to the season."
All Ulster will say amen to that.