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Ulster ace Payne eyes return after spell on sidelines

By Ali Gordon

Hobbling off the pitch with a nasty foot injury wasn't exactly how Ulster full-back Jared Payne had intended to end his first international cap.

Donning the Irish number 13 jersey previously worn by national hero Brian O'Driscoll, the weight of expectation lay firmly on the New Zealand-born star as the squad took on South Africa at the Aviva Stadium - and he delivered.

After 75 minutes of pacey runs and non-stop hard graft in last month's 29-15 triumph over the Springboks, the Ireland debutant's autumn campaign sadly came to an abrupt end.

Finally out of his "moon boot", the 29-year-old has made huge progress since he was diagnosed with a badly sprained foot and is now back in the gym preparing himself for an eagerly awaited Ulster return.

"It was a good 75 minutes out on the pitch but it was just a bit disappointing the way it had to end," said Payne.

"Recovery is going okay - it's been pretty slow and boring though and being stuck in one of those moon boots isn't ideal but I'm out of the moon boot now, thankfully.

"I've just started walking again and running a bit on the Alter-G (anti-gravity treadmill) so it's nice to actually be running again for the first time in quite a while.

"Hopefully I'll be back again by Christmas though, it's looking good."

Despite Payne's Ireland debut failing to have the fairytale ending he'd dreamed of for some time, he revealed that the whole experience was "amazing" and he cannot wait for another opportunity to prove himself to national coach Joe Schmidt.

"It was awesome - everything you'd imagine it would be. The crowd were so passionate down at the Aviva and running out and singing the anthem and getting stuck into the game was all pretty surreal," he recalled.

"It flew by, as they say, but I loved every minute of it. It was great and hopefully I'll get the chance to do it again in the future."

But watching the Ireland team achieving such sensational results in the autumn international series and Ulster overcoming then PRO12 league leaders Ospreys in such stunning fashion at the Kingspan last month made for some bittersweet moments for Payne.

"It's always tough as a rugby player to be on the sidelines - everyone wants to be out there - but it's even harder watching the guys do so well.

"Ireland were just amazing, especially against Australia. It's been really tough watching but I'm fully behind them both," Payne said.

"Seeing the Ulster boys get so close down in Munster (last weekend) was always going to be tough because you end up thinking about what you maybe could have done if you had been out there playing but it's all part of rugby these days.

"You've just got to be positive and do what you can to help the team so I've just been watching and trying to help out with the support side of things. It has been frustrating to say the least."

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