Payne not resting on his laurels
Ulster ace eager to continue learning at the highest level
Having just stepped off the Kingspan turf after his training run-out with Ireland, Jared Payne ambles in with his boots off while sporting a fresh looking cut on the bridge of his nose.
Having to face the media is far from his ideal when it comes to post-training activity but having left the action last Sunday against England with a concussion, the Kiwi is keen to get it across that everything is looking good regarding his availability for tomorrow’s showdown with Wales.
“I just got a wee bump to the head, but I’m good as gold now,” the 29-year-old says.
“Everything’s been passed so there’s nothing more.”
As Ireland aim to go four from four in the Six Nations, his playing for the first time at the Millennium Stadium is mentioned and Payne admits that the special atmosphere the home of Welsh rugby is renowned for is something he would like to experience.
“I heard that,” he says about the intensity of the place and especially so with the roof closed.
“I’m looking forward to it and I hear there’s a pretty flash (pre-match) light show too so if I get picked and experience it, it will be class.”
It’s typical Payne. Firing in a throwaway line and then seeking to move quickly on to, seemingly, bring a swifter end to his inquisition.
The same approach is applied when he is asked if fellow Kiwi Joe Schmidt might just end up as All Blacks coach in the not too distant future.
“Hopefully not,” comes the reply to much laughter.
He won his fourth cap against England on Sunday and is now beginning to silence those who doubted that his partnership with emerging star Robbie Henshaw was workable and that nostalgia for Brian O’Driscoll would simply overwhelm the immediate replacement in the number 13 shirt.
Some thought that Henshaw was the better outside centre instead of being made to play at 12, while even more wondered aloud if Payne was really a centre at all and was actually a much more accomplished player at full-back.
The concerns over Payne’s physicality in the bish-bash world of international midfield play have also largely melted away, elevating Schmidt’s abilities at forging unlikely-looking partnerships, and then moulding them into functioning units, to almost mystical status.
“We’re a team now,” Payne says of playing alongside Henshaw who won man of the match against England and scored the game’s only try.
“You’ve got to combine well with your 12 and the way Robbie’s playing at the moment is unbelievable.
“We put a fair amount of work into it so it’s pleasing that it’s worked so well. But we’ve made a few errors and there is still room for improvement.
“We’re also playing a few games of cards but he hasn’t put any money on the table yet,” Payne adds to, again, a smattering of laughter from those gathered around him.
As for having to adapt to Test match rugby — he won his first cap against South Africa in November after becoming Irish-qualified under the three year residency rule — the Ulster player admits it’s still a work in progress for him
“There’s less space and a little bit less time to make decisions.
“But slowly I’m starting to understand things a bit more. There’s still stuff to work on as I made a few mistakes and I need to iron those out,” he says of the England game.
“Personally there are a few decisions I made and a few lines in defence I need to improve on. If I can do that I can be happier,” he adds before being asked about what the team as a whole must do to get the better of Wales and stay on course to retain their Six Nations title.
“As a team? I can’t say too much or I’d be giving it away and getting in trouble,” is his smiling response.
The Schmidt factor then comes into play and Payne almost becomes animated about the big impact his fellow Kiwi has had on him.
“It’s great to have a coach who is going to pull you up as you always want to improve.
“He is very good and everything that is said about him is true. He’s incredibly detailed and accurate with what he wants and at the same time he’s grand to talk to.
“He really strikes the balance very well,” is Payne’s response.
As for tomorrow, Schmidt’s detailed eye will have been scanning the much-vaunted Welsh midfield of Lions Test players Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies for weaknesses.
But Ireland’s current occupant of the outside centre position remains diplomatic of the task he will face in Cardiff.
“I’ve played against them individually but I can’t take too much from previous encounters,” said Payne.
And as for feeling the pressure rising, well, he shrugs the notion off with typical insouciance.
“There’s pressure from the outside, but internally we know what we’re focused on which is the next game and hopefully we’ll know what we need to do and we’ll do it.”