Injured Lion Payne making 'significant progress' but Ulster won't set return timetable
Ulster maintain they will not put a timetable on Jared Payne's return to action, with the centre still on the sidelines almost six months after his Lions tour was prematurely brought to an end.
The Irish international last played in June due to what Ulster's latest medical update described as "headaches", but has been taking on an increased load in training recently.
While many of his fellow Lions have also had injury interrupted campaigns, Payne has endured a particularly unpleasant time with a serious kidney problem leaving him laid low last season.
"I think first and foremost the welfare of the players is paramount and that's been our focus," said Director of Rugby Les Kiss yesterday.
"Certainly you'd imagine that type of thing is not the easiest thing for any player to go through, even someone of his experience. He's been through a pretty torrid time with the kidney, and then the constant doubts on the British and Irish Lions tour, and now he's come back with this situation. Look, he's been upbeat, we've been positive and optimistic internally. He's getting the right care.
"He is seeing the right people. We are going through a lot of different ideas and methods to get to the root of it. I think we're very close to it now and he is in as good a space as he has been for a long time.
"I know people are always looking for a time-line (for a return to playing), but something like this, I don't think that's appropriate.
"We take this week by week but each week are seeing more progress and more recently we've seen significant progress."
While Payne is out of contract at the end of this season, Kiss added that he believes a new deal will "look after itself" once the native Kiwi returns, and gave short shrift to the notion that the possibility of retirement.
"Conversations are about where you are today," he said. "How did you respond to the session yesterday? What did you think of our game?
"He is part of our core group, our defensive leadership group and the tactical information, not to the detriment of what he is because he has to do other stuff. But he's engaged in the program and the only thing he is not doing is the extra bit.
"That's where we have to be very smart and go through the right processes because it's important that it's right for him and to get it to the point where he's available for us.
"I don't want to talk about medical things without permission from him but there's been a lot of investigation done and methods to expose him to high levels and see how he responds.
"He's a man with a big heart and he wants to put that jersey on. But we want to be smart and make sure it's the right timing.
"We are doing everything possible to look after the welfare of Jared for a number of reasons.
"First, he's a wonderful human being, he has a young family, he is so important to Ulster, he's important to Irish rugby."
Ulster do hope to have Jean Deysel and Rodney Ah You back over the Christmas period.
However, Chris Henry, Charles Piutau and Rory Best are all missing the first interpro of the festive period at the Galway Sportsground against Connacht on Saturday (7:35pm kick-off).