Ulster's attitude shift has been key to improvince defence, reveals Payne
There are times when it's easy to forget that as recently as last season, Ireland's crowded midfield picture was populated by one more centre - Ulster's Jared Payne.
The naturalised Kiwi, now the province's defence coach, played his last game of rugby on the British and Irish Lions tour to his homeland in 2017, but his retirement was not officially confirmed until almost a year later.
From qualifying on residency in 2014 until his final game in the Six Nations of 2017, Payne was always a first-choice selection for Joe Schmidt when fit, essentially providing the short-term answer to the long-posed question of just who would replace Brian O'Driscoll in the Ireland side.
Since then, though, Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell have been added to the mix, alongside Garry Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw.
While Ringrose is still rehabbing a hamstring injury ahead of this week's trip to Rome to face Italy, midfield selection figures to be a big call for the remainder of this Six Nations and, indeed, beyond.
"Thank God they weren't (all) there when I was playing, as I wouldn't have got playing too often," joked Payne when asked about the riches at centre.
"Those boys are big names and then there are some guys in the provinces that are good. It's awesome, it's an area that is pretty strong for Ireland.
"You see where they would have lost a couple of centres in the past and they would have been struggling. Now they have guys who step in and take the jersey away from the people in them.
"It's a cracking place to be in and they seem like a pretty tight group. They all want to help each other and they all want to get better as a collective, it's not just two or three guys getting better.
"It's great to see and hopefully it bodes well for the future.
"Funny, I was speaking to someone the other day. The amount of time that everyone is fit so they get to put two people in there, it doesn't really happen. There is that.
"They haven't been forced to rotate people so far because of injuries. But I don't think it would matter that much with this group.
"There are one or two wee things but they seem to work well as a unit. They get together and spend a fair bit of time together helping each other.
"And that comes through when one or two of them change around and perform pretty well on the weekend. So in some places where they don't help each other and it's a poor culture it could be bad. But the way they seem to do it, it is not too much of an issue for them. And they are all quality rugby players as well, so it helps."
Of that group playing well at the provinces, Ulster's Stuart McCloskey is no doubt a part. Having won three caps for Ireland, he's not been included this time around but was the difference between the two sides when the province beat Ospreys 8-0 on Friday night, being named man of the match as he racked up a century of caps.
"I think he just got a token one for his 100th game," joked Payne.
"He's been playing pretty well for us, he has been performing well and he has put his foot in the door."
While McCloskey grabbed the headlines, that his try proved so decisive was down to Ulster holding their Welsh hosts pointless.
By all accounts, the man in charge of that defence has taken to coaching like a natural, even if his side's statistics in terms of points and tries conceded are not especially impressive, matching their middle of the road standing in the table thanks to a few outliers such as the record defeat to Munster.
Ahead of Saturday's hosting of Zebre (7.35pm kick-off, Kingspan Stadium), Payne is pleased with the progress of a side who set worst ever marks in that regard last year.
"The boys showed a fair bit of energy and you can't ask much more than keeping things to zero, can you?" he said. "There were one or two things that we obviously always want to get better at, but you've got to give the boys a big pat on the back for that.
"The boys have improved and put a lot more work into it, taking things seriously and showing a bit more energy here and there.
"I think the whole attitude around it has changed, so it's good.
"It's going to be a tough day defending if you don't want to put your body in front of people or work hard for each other.
"It doesn't matter what defensive system you use, you're going to struggle. It's a collective thing I think.
"You need 15 people or as close to 15 people on the same page doing the same thing and if you get that, more often than not you'll get a good result.
"It's got to come from everyone. If we have people dragging along, we're going to struggle.
"We're a collective team defensively, so we know collectively we've got to be good together.
"That Benetton game (a draw last month) gave us a bit of a kick up the so and so, so we knew we had to learn from those mistakes and if we didn't, it would hurt us.
"I think we did and we showed a fair bit more energy on the pitch, improved in some of our contacts and made a few more tackles which is pretty important in the defensive line.
"They did that and some guys who came in, Mikey Lowry, Clive Ross and Darren Cave, I think they had good games defensively. They really helped the cause."
As is his wont, the coach offered no update on the panel available to his province for this weekend but there are changes required.
Jordi Murphy, John Cooney and Iain Henderson, who all started against Ospreys, have rejoined Rory Best and Jacob Stockdale back at Ireland camp, while Will Addison has returned to Belfast but only due to injury.
Angus Kernohan, meanwhile, has been on Ireland Under-20s duty this week.
Michael Lowry is the only fresh injury concern from the game in Bridgend, currently undergoing the return to play protocols after departing for an HIA.
Robert Baloucoune (ankle) and Marcell Coetzee (hamstring) are still rehabbing their respective injuries but have not yet been ruled out.