Payne ready to unlock green door
Ulster's Jared Payne had a big day yesterday – and there could be a few more in the next couple of seasons.
Called up in the morning by the Barbarians, that was followed by the lunch-time announcement of a new contract with Ulster.
And now, if everything goes to plan, the Kiwi full-back could be wearing the green of Ireland rather than the black of New Zealand come the 2015 World Cup. The former Auckland Blues player becomes eligible for Ireland in just over a year, which means he could have a full 2014 Guinness Series and the 2015 Six Nations campaign under his belt ahead of the following autumn's global showdown.
Explaining his 'Irishness', Payne said: "I think it takes effect from September 2014 but I'm not exactly sure. It's still a long way away so I've got to make sure I play well enough to be called. If I'm lucky enough to do that, it will be awesome." His standing saw him named in The Barbarians squad for the forthcoming dates with England at Twickenham on May 26 and the British & Irish Lions in Hong Kong on June 1.
Oddly enough he will be hoping to miss the first of those two matches. That is because he wants Ulster to win the RaboDirect PRO12 and for that to happen they must first beat the Scarlets in Friday night's semi-final at Ravenhill and then see off winners of the Leinster v Glasgow clash.
The final will be staged at the RDS on May 25, a day before the Baa-Baas face England, so clearly Payne could not feature at Twickenham.
But he would be able to face the Australia-bound Lions in Hong Kong, with the location and timing working out very nicely for Payne who will be heading home to New Zealand following Ulster's long season.
"There had been a bit of talk about it but I didn't find out until it was announced this morning on Twitter."he said when asked when his Baa-Baas call had come.
Expressing his delight at being called to guest for a team whose name is synonymous with fast, exciting, attacking rugby, Payne – an exponent of just such football – added: "It's an awesome privilege to be invited to play. They like to run and chuck the ball about so it should be quite an occasion in Hong Kong against the Lions. I'm looking forward to it."
Intriguingly, one of the Lions he could find himself facing three weeks from now is current Ireland full-back Leinster's Rob Kearney. Indeed, the pair could be squaring up in the PRO12 final a week before that, too.
Kearney – like Payne a 27-year-old – recently committed himself to a contract extension which will keep him at the RDS until the end of the 2014-15 season. Outstanding for the 2009 Lions in South Africa, a three-times Heineken Cup winner with Leinster and rugby's European Player of the Year in 2012, he is a player Payne must oust if he is to be Ireland's first-choice 15. In addition, Connacht's fast-emerging Robbie Henshaw is going to feature in that fight.
Kearney is in pole position at this stage, however, not least because Ireland's newly appointed head coach Joe Schmidt is a huge fan and admirer having worked with him at Leinster.
But Kearney is not alone in having signed a new contract for yesterday Payne confirmed that he has just accepted an extension which means he will be playing his rugby for Ulster until the summer of 2016, at least.
Payne admitted the exciting brand of rugby Ulster are playing, coupled with their undoubted improvement and the players' desire to continue developing as individuals and as a squad had made the decision straightforward.
"This is a good environment to be in," he said. "The way the boys have been playing and the way we're striving to win trophies and to get better means it's a good place to be.
"Everyone is improving, individually and collectively. You want to be in an environment where people are working to be better. You don't want to be somewhere where people are starting to get bored or things are going a bit stale."
But forget any idea that Payne believes Ulster are nearly there in terms of the standard to which they aspire.
"There's still room for a massive amount of improvement. The players and coaches know that," he said. "How far might this team go? I don't know. But there is plenty of room for improvement and that's the really exciting thing."
The quality of those alongside whom he lines out in Ulster's back three delights him, too.
"The backs we've got at the moment are awesome," he enthused. "They make my job easy. We've got two or three great wingers in this team and it's just good to be able to play inside them.
"We've started to score a few tries again, but there's still a long way to go. We're still missing a lot, too, so we're just trying to get to the point where we nail more opportunities than we miss. We're playing pretty well, but that's another of those areas where we can be better."