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Headaches felt c**p but I've a plan to improve Ulster's defence now: Payne

 

By Adam McKendry

Watching Jared Payne the coach is just as intriguing as watching Jared Payne the player.

At Ulster's open training session in Letterkenny, having split the squad in two, he stood behind the defensive line with brow furrowed as deep in thought as when he marshalled Ireland's backs so masterfully.

It's hard to believe that only 13 months ago, Payne had nailed down the No.13 jersey for Ireland and was featuring for the British and Irish Lions in his native New Zealand.

In one fell swoop, it was taken away from him.

An innocuous head knock in a warm-up match against the Chiefs in Waikato was to be a career ender and, although Ulster repeatedly insisted he'd return last season, the persistent headaches saw him retire in May after eight years and 78 caps for Ulster.

"I felt pretty c*** in general," the New Zealander revealed. "Sometimes you felt like you had a bit of a hangover and other times it felt like something was wrong in your head and you were tempted to call A&E because the headaches were so bad.

"It was challenging and it was frustrating but I'm glad to be out the other side of it, and improving a little bit day by day and living a pretty normal life is good."

It's not quite over yet though. Despite avoiding a concussion and improving bit by bit, the 32-year-old still isn't quite where he'd like to be.

"I still haven't been able to do a lot of intense exercise since I got ruled out of things," Payne admitted. "I don't want to risk that and spin the wheel with anything too nasty the next day."

So without being able to take to the pitch as a player, Payne did the next best thing: turn to coaching as the head of Ulster's defence.

It was a natural progression for the Tauranga native, who was lauded as a player for his defensive organisation in the midfield and vastly improved his adopted province in his unofficial coaching role at the tail end of last season.

His task is to carry that over to this year and improve upon a leaky defence that conceded 61 tries in the Guinness PRO14 last season, but Payne is up for the challenge.

He grinned and said: "I'm definitely enjoying it. It's challenging, it's interesting as well.

"Thankfully I got a dry run towards the end of last season, and I was lucky enough the powers above showed some faith in me and gave me this opportunity.

"(Coaching) was always something that was on the cards, it was just getting the chance."

And he has an interesting take on how to shore up the defence going into the new season, admitting that perhaps the work effort wasn't as high as it could have been last campaign.

"Any part of rugby is about working hard and I think sometimes we didn't emphasise that enough as a group," the former centre surmised.

"I think now we're working harder on both sides of the ball as a group, there's a bit of attitude.

"It's always the interesting thing about coaching, or the most different thing I found about being a player, you have no control over what you're judged on, on game day," he added.

"As a player you can control your actions and what you're judged on, but as a coach you have to buckle in and enjoy the ride whether it's good or bad."

With a full pre-season, and a brief sojourn to Australia to work with the Ireland squad, under his belt, Payne is prepared for the new season, and he believes the squad is too.

The ideal goal is to return to the play-offs in the PRO14 after missing out last season, and Ulster's newest coaching recruit is anticipating big things based on his early assessments.

"Really good," was his summation of pre-season so far. "Great attitude, especially from the young guys coming in. They've set a really good attitude in terms of work ethic and standards and attitude in training, and they've shown a great physicality.

"It's a good group, there's a good team bond and the boys seem to be enjoying it, which is a challenge in pre-season. You don't see too many boys with sad faces, they're enjoying what they're doing, so it's so far so good."

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