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Ulster's Jared Payne central to Ireland's bid for Six Nations' glory

By Jonathan Bradley

Despite displaying stellar form for Ulster of late in the full-back jersey, Jared Payne would play anywhere for Ireland.

The naturalised Kiwi began his northern hemisphere career as a 15 but over the past two seasons has been deployed more at outside centre - where he has won each of his 10 Test caps since making his debut against South Africa in November 2014.

With the plethora of midfield options available to Joe Schmidt for the Six Nations, including Payne's provincial team mates Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall, there has been mounting talk that the 30-year-old could be better utilised back in his old position.

For Payne, however, he remains perfectly content to play wherever picked and would relish a potential reunion with Connacht's Robbie Henshaw when Ireland's bid for a third consecutive title gets under way against Wales on Sunday (3pm kick-off).

"They're pushing me into 10 once or twice," he joked yesterday at Ireland's Carton House base.

"I have been training all over the shop the last few weeks.

"As long as you get on the field, after the first two or three phases, you get to play pretty much what's in front of you and that's when you start to enjoy the game.

"I'll wait for Joe to make that call and do my job on the weekend."

Having run rampant from deep when Ulster took on Oyonnax at Kingspan Stadium two weekends ago, Payne thinks it'll be a different matter facing Warren Gatland's men regardless of where he is selected.

"I have been reasonably lucky with the games I have played I guess," he said.

"There was a bit of space. It's going to be a different kettle of fish this week, isn't it?

"At home against Oyonnax is a bit easier than Wales in the Aviva so it is going to be a big step up. We will see how it goes.

"It'll be a pretty tough game if you're at the back against Wales. They're a pretty good kick chase team, they're very good in the air and you might not get as much time as you might like at the back."

While Payne argues that there is no need for wholesale change after Ireland's World Cup quarter-final exit at the hands of Argentina four months ago - a game he missed after suffering a tournament ending foot fracture in the pool stages - two differing aspects of this campaign will involve his Ulster team mates.

With Rory Best (pictured yesterday) selected to fill the captaincy void left by the international retirement of Paul O'Connell, McCloskey is one of four new faces in the panel - in addition to Leinster's Garry Ringrose who trained with the senior team yesterday - and Payne thinks both have adjusted well.

"(Best) has been good. He's just been Besty," he said.

"He's talked up when he's needed to and if not he's just led from the front. He hasn't really changed.

"He's going to be himself and he's earned that respect from the guys over his years of performances. We'll follow him and do whatever he says.

"(McCloskey) is a pretty big tank, a big boy, and he's been playing outstanding rugby for Ulster.

"He has got that opportunity with a few injuries to the likes of Stuart Olding and he has taken his chance.

"Fair play to him, he's been great. He is a big ball carrier, subtle hands and he's learning the game very well. If he gets a chance I'm sure he will do a good job."

Should Payne and Henshaw be paired together again, with Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts already confirmed as Wales's starters, it will be a repeat of the midfield battle when the two sides met in the championship at the Millennium Stadium last season.

Wales came out on top that day, ultimately costing Ireland the chance of a grand slam, after the visitors pounded through phase after phase without being able to make the most telling of breakthroughs.

While Payne laughs that he won't be repeating his gesticulating for the ball on the wide channels from that day, he says the team must be more clinical if they are to get off to a winning start.

"Screaming and shaking my hands, I better not do that again," he said of last year's tussle.

"It's definitely a challenge. They probably came out on top the last time.

"As a group they dominated us so it is up to us this time to stand up to them and try and match them physically and bring a little extra in attack.

"I don't think it's a matter of changing things dramatically, it's just executing better and if there's space we break it and if not we use other options to get to the space that we see.

"We get a pretty free license. I think all this talk about changing is a bit of knee-jerk reaction.

"We're happy with where we are. If we're a bit more clinical and take our chances we'll be in a better place."

If that better place sees them heading to France with a win in hand, then surely the doom and gloom of the World Cup will finally be consigned to the past.

RBS Six Nations: Aviva Stadium, Sunday 3.00 pm



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