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Ulster's Jared Payne feels the heat ahead of Treviso game

By Jonathan Bradley

As recently as last week, it appeared that Ulster's match this Sunday against Benetton Treviso could be the last between two for quite some time.

The Italian club's officials had signalled their intent to quit the PRO12 at the end of this season due to the continued uncertainty over the future of the Heineken Cup.

Thankfully however, with the saga seemingly nearing a conclusion, it appears that the situation will be resolved in a manner that maintains the status quo of Ulster's domestic league, albeit with a new qualifying structure in place for the European competitions

The news was greeted with much relief by Ulster's squad, including Jared Payne, even if the Kiwi admitted he had attempted to turn a blind eye to the months of pan-European politicking.

Ahead of this weekend's trip to northern Italy, he said: "I haven't followed it too closely for the last while to be honest with you, but it's obviously massive for us that it looks like it's going to be sorted out.

"It's something that's odd for players because it has been out of our control but, for guys who have come over here to play their rugby, the European competitions are definitely a big thing.

"It's always nice to know you're still going to have a job as well, I guess."

With the immediate future of the league soon to be resolved, Ulster will resume their battle for a top four place at the Stadio di Monigo on Sunday.

Following the postponement of last week's game with Scarlets – the first such cancellation of Payne's career and now rescheduled for March 14 – Mark Anscombe's men have fallen out of the play-off places and now face a crucial run of fixtures without the considerable talents of their international contingent.

And Payne is aware that he must help fill the void created by the absence of that considerable experience. He noted: "It's definitely a bit different at this time of year when you have a batch of young guys coming into the squad to replace the internationals.

"Last year we were lucky enough to have a bit of a buffer but now we can't slip up if we're going to stay in touch.

"As one of the older heads I just have to get on the ball a bit more and encourage these guys to show the talent that they have. Treviso had a bit of a setback last week (in a loss to Ospreys) and they'll be hurting so everyone will need to be on their toes."

Next year, of course, Payne looks set to be on Six Nations duty himself – he sampled a taste of the Aviva atmosphere when providing BBC radio punditry on the Wales victory – as he becomes eligible for Ireland selection in November and is tipped by many to fill the number 13 shirt when the legendary Brian O'Driscoll retires after this championship.

For now, however, he remains focused on the task at hand.

"Playing for Ireland is something that would be awesome but it's still a long way away," said the former Auckland Blue.

"If you look at the way they are playing, it would obviously be wicked to be involved, but there are plenty of awesome players to get past so I need to concentrate on doing the business for Ulster."

Anscombe will more than likely not be able to rely on Payne during international windows for much longer. He is sure to be hugely thankful for his presence while it lasts.

Belfast Telegraph


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