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Payne hoping for a double bonus

By Jonathan Bradley

Jared Payne may not have much rugby under his belt of late, but the man often referred to as Ireland's defensive captain could be set for an unlikely return to the national side in time for the Six Nations clash with Wales in Cardiff next Friday after yesterday being recalled to the squad.

The influential centre has been absent for the first three rounds of the Championship, and indeed the last three months, thanks to a kidney problem he sustained on international duty back in November against Australia.

But he made his comeback off the bench for Ulster against Zebre last week and, after getting through 20 minutes without issue, he will start the province's game against Treviso at Kingspan Stadium tonight (7.35pm kick-off).

With Joe Schmidt sure to be keeping a keen eye on how he fares, the naturalised Kiwi will have 80 minutes to show the Ireland head coach he will be ready to take on the Welsh seven days from today.

National concerns aside, Payne's return is a boost for Ulster ahead of yet another crucial game.

Having left themselves with so little margin for error thanks to a stuttering winter in their league campaign - most of which came without Payne, who will make just his fourth PRO12 start of the season tonight - anything less than a bonus point win will be viewed as a failure for Ulster.

After banking a five-point haul against Zebre last time out, the province still faced some questions about the level of their performance in Parma even after running in six tries.

And while Les Kiss would surely take the same tonight, Payne exuded calm when talking about the pressure of knowing four tries were the minimum requirement.

"If we worry about the areas we need to improve on week in week out, then scores will just come," he said.

"If we win it's good, and if we get a bonus point it's even better.

"We just have to keep working each week and not get too far ahead of ourselves."

He won't be the only one hoping to catch the national selector's eye after six provincial team-mates were also named in the Ireland panel.

Andrew Trimble, Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy will be the others handed one last chance to impress tonight, although there was no place in Schmidt's squad for Tommy Bowe.

Even still, there will be many keeping a special watch on Payne with next week's Welsh visit foremost in the mind.

It could be quite the dramatic return for the 31-year-old.

While Payne's half-time substitution against the Wallabies in November was something of a mystery at the time, it later emerged that he had been hospitalised for days after the event thanks to a forceful hit to his kidney.

And while Ulster's eventual three-month prognosis proved correct - in fact, it was three months to the very day - there were initial concerns that his season was over.

Kiss this week talked of the need for him to keep taking "baby steps" along the road to recovery but the potential of him being pitched almost straight back into the intensity of Test match rugby on his return shows his value to the green jersey.

Consider these words last week from the man currently occupying Payne's usual outside centre slot, Garry Ringrose.

"Jared is incredible defensively, and I've learned as much as I could off him, training with him and watching him on TV," said the youngster whose performances have belied his age so far in the Championship.

"To describe Jared as the defensive captain is very true.

"I don't think there's a specific defensive captain now.

"If I could be half the player Jared is I'd be over the moon.

"With him being injured I've just had to try to best fill his shoes with the opportunity I've been given."

While Payne's inclusion in the squad was somewhat ludicrously criticised from the fringes when he first qualified for Ireland - regardless of opinions on residency laws, his Test-level ability can never be questioned - it is clear the regard team-mates have for his skill set.

It is worth remembering too what happened when Ireland were last in the Welsh capital.

Rewind to the World Cup and, with Payne having broken his foot against Italy two weeks earlier, Ireland's defence was ripped to shreds by Argentina in the Principality Stadium as they crashed out of the tournament.

While they were missing four other key men that day, and Payne alone couldn't have turned so forceful a tide, that game bore a resemblance to Scotland's win over Ireland in Murrayfield last month, also without Payne.

Could such a recent track record see Schmidt turn back to his tried and trusted at the first opportunity?

He'll certainly be watching events in Belfast tonight.

Ireland squad: Forwards: R Best, J Conan, U Dillane, T Furlong, C Healy, J Heaslip, I Henderson, D Kilcoyne, D Leavy, J McGrath, S O'Brien, T O'Donnell, P O'Mahony, Q Roux, D Ryan, J Ryan, N Scannell, CJ Stander, D Toner, J Tracy.

Backs: J Carbery, A Conway, K Earls, C Gilroy, R Henshaw, P Jackson, R Kearney, K Marmion, L Marshall , L McGrath, C Murray, T O'Halloran, J Payne, G Ringrose, J Sexton, A Trimble, S Zebo.

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