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Rugby World Cup: Ulster ace Jared Payne out to raise bar even higher

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 23/09/2015

Jared Payne
Jared Payne

Having filled the void left behind by Ireland's iconic centre pairing of Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy, Jared Payne is hoping to build on his burgeoning midfield partnership with Robbie Henshaw against Romania this weekend.

Joe Schmidt's side meet the eastern Europeans at Wembley Stadium on Sunday afternoon looking to maintain the momentum of a bonus-point win against Canada which opened their World Cup campaign last weekend.

Payne was a try-scorer in the romp at the Millennium Stadium - his second Test touchdown after crossing for a crucial score in last season's Six Nations clincher against Scotland - and again showed his value to the cause with an assured performance with and without the ball.

There was one error, however - it was his kick that landed in the grateful arms of DTH van der Merwe, who then sprinted home untouched.

Payne could be forgiven if he is sick of the sight of the winger - the Scarlet also scored the all-important try for his then-club Glasgow against Ulster in last season's PRO12 semi-final - but the score for Canada was of little consequence to the ultimate outcome.

Luke Fitzgerald filled the inside centre berth on Saturday but Henshaw's healing hamstring could see the Athlone youngster restored to the starting line-up against Romania and Payne is hoping for game time alongside the Connacht star who he dovetailed with so well throughout the Six Nations.

"It would be nice to get some time together with Robbie but whoever Joe picks, we've got to make sure that we get together, do our video work then build the combinations as best we can," said the 29-year-old. "And then hopefully come the game it's seamless.

"With Lukey performing well now and Darren (Cave) performing well, there's a bit of depth there. It's a positive for us.

"Luke (Fitzgerald) came in and slotted in pretty seamlessly at the weekend and that was only from a Thursday. So we've got to take a lead from that, follow his example and try to do a job.

"Robbie was jogging around on Monday, so he was moving well enough. And we'll see what happens in the next few days I guess.

"Robbie's got a great passing game, very good feet and he's big and abrasive too.

"In a few more years he's going to be one of the stand-out centres in world rugby."

With Payne first asked to fill the Irish 13 jersey owned for 15 years by O'Driscoll last November - the New Zealander qualified on residency after arriving at Ulster as a full-back ahead of the 2011-12 campaign - it was Henshaw's ascension to Test starter that hastened the conclusion of D'Arcy's career.

Despite the daunting proposition of replacing a pairing that lined out together in 56 Tests, Payne thinks they have dealt with the scrutiny capably.

"We both had some pretty big boots to fill with D'Arcy and Drico going when we got thrown in there, but I think we handled it pretty well," he said.

"When Joe first put us together, he just told us to chat to each other a lot and to look at videos to study each other's game to build a combination and we just went from there.

"He gave us confidence to back our skills and try to bring that together as best we could.

"He didn't say, 'this is who you need to be like', he realised we're our own individuals and he gave us confidence to back our skills and try to bring that together as best we can.

"And then any time you get picked together for several games, hopefully you realise you're doing something right. There's plenty for us to work on. We both chat a bit off the pitch and try to improve."

For a man who watched the latter stages of the previous tournament while rehabbing a ruptured Achilles, an injury picked up on only his third outing in an Ulster jersey, Payne has naturally found the last number of weeks surreal.

"I didn't think any of this would happen," he admitted.

"It's a dream come true. The whole experience has been unreal, from the fans in Cardiff and playing at the Millennium and then the welcome ceremony (on Monday), it's just unbelievable and I'm loving it."

One part of this week, however, has been lost on the former Auckland Blue.

Ireland are currently preparing for Sunday's game at St George's Park, the English FA's state-of-the-art training base where even the hotel rooms are adorned with images of heroes such as David Beckham, Stuart Pearce and Peter Shilton.

While many of the squad are looking forward to the prospect of running out at the home of football, for Payne it lacks similar resonance.

"I didn't even know what Wembley was growing up back in New Zealand," he acknowledged.

Understandable perhaps, but no doubt there are hopes that the famous stadium will hold greater significance for the Tauranga native come Sunday evening.

Belfast Telegraph

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