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Jared Payne is ready to make his old All Blacks pals suffer

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

This has got to be one of the stranger days in the life of Ulster's Jared Payne. At the age of 31, the New Zealander will face the All Blacks for the first time, going up against friends and former team-mates on neutral soil at Soldier Field tonight (8pm).

A former Junior All Black who played for three Super Rugby franchises but couldn't break into the international set-up, Payne decided to take another route to the Test arena.

New Zealander Payne "won't get too carried away" in his reunion with old pals from the town of Tauranga on New Zealand's North Island, when his hero was Christian Cullen and the black jersey was his goal, but when he became a senior player there was a queue ahead of him and, try as he did, he couldn't jump it.

So, he took up Ulster's offer of a three-year contract and made his way to Belfast where he has become a key player for his adopted province and, subsequently, country after he qualified on the controversial three-year residency rule.

He'll come up against a few old colleagues from his Crusaders time, in particular Ryan Crotty who starts at No 12.

"It will be pretty interesting for him, I suspect," Crotty said.

"I'm sure he'll be right up for the challenge though. Knowing Payno back when he played for the Crusaders a few years ago now he was always a good lad, a bit of a joker, but he was a fierce competitor and a good player.

"So, I'd be expecting much of the same from him. I don't know if I'd be expecting a wee bit of banter out on the field as well.

"I wouldn't be surprised if he throws a few our way.

"But he's a good lad and I'm sure he'll be excited at the challenge of playing against the All Blacks."

Robbie Henshaw will partner Payne at Soldier Field tonight and he and his team-mates have been soaking up as much knowledge as possible.

"It's great, he would have played with and against all the guys he'll be playing against and I was slagging him during the week, asking if he'd been getting texts from the other side," the Athlone native said.

"It's obviously Jared's first time to face some of the players he played with and against when he was younger in Super Rugby.

"In terms of asking him of how they play, that's where he's vital for us and vital for our team.

"He's grown up there, he knows how they play so we get all the info off him."

If Steve Hansen is upset at the prospect of facing a New Zealander, he wasn't showing it.

"If Jared is over there and that's what he wants to do and he meets the criteria, then I think that's great," the All Black coach said.

"Bundee Aki is not far away either, so that will be another one. The powers that be have got all the information at hand, and as long as people aren't taking advantage of young athletes and putting them in a situation where they're promising them stuff and they don't give it to them.

"I think that would be wrong. But by and large it's been happening for a long time. Is it three years, or is it four years? That's for the powers that be too look at."

Richie McCaw played with Payne at the Crusaders and respects him as a player. Asked if he could envisage what it would be like to step into the centre's boots as he faces the Haka today, the All Black great was struggling.

"I take my hat off to him," he said. "He's done pretty well. It just shows, someone's in your way at home, so you get an opportunity somewhere else and you've got to step up, which he's done. Some of the things he did, he certainly had the skill and whatnot.

"But, you know, sometimes a new environment gives you different things as well. Whether he would have been an All Black at home, it's hard to know.

"The way he's playing now as opposed to the way he was, he's certainly a better player than he was, so, whether a change of environment helped, I don't know.

"I grew up and went to school in Dunedin and playing for Otago, I always wanted to play for Otago. I moved to Canterbury and the team I wanted to beat the most was the team that you come from, you know?

"It's weird but that might be the same for him."

Ireland's scrum coach Greg Feek, himself a former All Black, reckons Payne won't get too caught up in the moment.

"JP is a pretty relaxed individual, he takes things in his stride, and I think it will be a big moment for him but I think he will get on with it and enjoy the challenge of playing against the All-Blacks," he said.

"He will respect the fact he is playing against them and everything they are about, but he is not the type of person who will get too carried away."

Meanwhile, Ulster's Rory Best has urged Ireland not to fear the All Blacks, despite admitting Joe Schmidt's men will probably face the best team of all time.

"There's been some fantastic rugby teams and some fantastic All Blacks teams," said Best, with Ireland still seeking their first-ever victory over New Zealand.

"You look at the scorelines over the Rugby Championship, it sums up just how good they are.

"The important thing for us is that we respect them and everything they've done to date, but we've got to look at ourselves and how we can improve.

"We've got to respect them but we can't go out and fear them."

Ireland skipper Best will win his 98th cap tonight and can pass 100 Test bows this autumn.

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