Belfast Telegraph

Ulster out to seize bonus of a final shot at success in match against Oyonnax

By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster must show they've learnt from their painful defeats in the big games if they are to return to the top of the European game, according to Irish international back Jared Payne.

The naturalised Kiwi's time in Belfast has coincided with Ulster playing regularly at the sharp end of the season but, so far, they have always stumbled over the final hurdles.

Knock-out defeats - both domestically and in what is now the Champions Cup - have stung the squad as they attempt to bring silverware back to Kingspan Stadium for the first time since the 2006 Celtic League.

Ulster enter today's home contest with Oyonnax (1pm kick-off) knowing they need a win, and help elsewhere, to make the last eight but if they fail to do so it will be two pool games against Saracens yielding no return that are the cause of regret.

The north Londoners have been a familiar foe, beating Ulster in two Heineken Cup quarter-finals prior to this season's meetings, and Payne says he and his team mates must learn from results like last weekend's 33-17 reverse at Allianz Park.

"(Saracens) are where we ultimately want to be," Payne said.

"We can take a few lessons out of the weekend, that's for sure. We've got to take those on board.

"We've been talking about it for years and probably haven't taken it on board I guess because our performances haven't improved in the big games.

"We need to start learning.

They're a very good team. They stick to their game and it's very hard to take them off that.

"I thought we started reasonably well but they fought back into the game and unfortunately were too good for us.

"It's a range of things. They've been together as a group a lot longer than some of the players we have here.

"They've a pretty strict game-plan and they've stuck to that for a few years.

"They've a very good team, eight or something in the England squad and a few more knocking on the door, and they've got good coaching."

That result against Ulsterman Mark McCall's side means Payne and co enter today's clash with their European fate in the hands of others.

Les Kiss's side must first secure a high-scoring win and then anxiously await a slip from two of the other six teams whose chances of securing a quarter-final spot look, at present, more promising.

"We want to be in the quarters and we think we're good enough," said Payne.

"It'll be disappointing if we don't make it but it's not the end of the world. The sun will come up the following day and there'll be another competition to focus on."

This afternoon's clash will be a second game back for Payne after missing significant time with a broken foot sustained during Ireland's World Cup campaign and a groin niggle that complicated his return.

Having come through the 80 minutes at Allianz Park seven days ago, and created Ulster's first score with an expertly measured chip through for Luke Marshall, the 10-time capped international was happy to get a game under his belt.

"Got through 80 minutes so it was a bit longer than expected but I got through it okay," said the 30-year-old.

"The foot has been good for a while, there were a few other issues in the rehab, but it's all as good as gold now.

"It was good to be back, it was a disappointing result, but it's always good to be back on the rugby field when you've been off it so long."

Just as he was a week ago, Payne will start at full-back today with the Six Nations just two weeks away.

The former Auckland Blue has been Joe Schmidt's first choice outside centre since qualifying on residency in November of 2014 but the composition of the provinces' backlines this weekend raise questions ahead of Ireland's title defence.

Payne, who began his Ulster career as a full-back, could be emerging as a rival for incumbent Rob Kearney while Robbie Henshaw makes his own return from injury for Connacht in the 13 jersey and not at inside centre where he has appeared in the Test arena over the last year and half.

More comfortable making statements on the pitch, Payne's discussions of such permutations are brief.

"Joe keeps his distance. We'll worry about that in the next week or two and go from there but I'm not too worried about where I am on the field - it's just good to be back."

For today, his focus remains on Ulster's latest French visitors and a chase for points that must see them attack from the off.

Payne knows that patience is often key in such scenarios but says the side have little choice but to throw caution to the wind.

"It's dangerous but it's what we have to look at," he said.

"We need five points to qualify so that's what we have to look at.

"We've got pretty good structures and it's just about doing the basics well and sticking to them, being clinical and getting a few tries.

"If we can't deal with that pressure we don't deserve to be in the quarters."

Unfortunately for Ulster, taking care of their own business this weekend is only half the battle.

Belfast Telegraph


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