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Ulster's men can be at the heart of Ireland's green machine

By Michael Sadlier

It had hardly been a well-kept secret that Joe Schmidt was going to try out a wholly new-look midfield for the first game up in the three Test autumn series, but the Ireland coach still found himself defending his decision to throw Jared Payne in at outside centre for his debut cap with three-capper, and rival for Brian O'Driscoll's former shirt number, Robbie Henshaw at inside centre.

And not only that, but Schmidt chose to do this while ignoring the rather strong cause which could be made for Gordon D'Arcy to be given a starting spot.

While all the attention was rightly being given to the new-look midfield, the return of Tommy Bowe seemed to slip by under the radar.

Bowe was last seen in an Ireland shirt this time last year before injury intervened to pretty much wreck his international hopes with the 30-year-old missing the Six Nations and then the tour to Argentina which allowed him time to sort out his troublesome groin issue.

With fellow Ulsterman Andrew Trimble sidelined along with other options Dave Kearney, Fergus McFadden and Keith Earls, Bowe has got his recall to national colours but it is not merely others' misfortune which has created this opportunity for the Monaghan man.

Bowe has been looking sharp again for Ulster of late having scored a great try at Leicester Tigers to illuminate a largely grim European evening at Welford Road and also crossed the line the week before in the impressive PRO12 win over Glasgow Warriors.

He will also be winning his 55th cap, and seeking his 27th try for Ireland, while standing on the opposite wing from a certain Bryan Habana who he also very recently had exposure to when Toulon came and conquered at the Kingspan Stadium. Habana scored that day but did so after looping round onto the opposite wing.

The other Ulster player on the side is flanker Chris Henry, who was part of the Six Nations title-winning side and he retains his place with the mighty Sean O'Brien still sidelined by injury.

Henry's form during the Six Nations campaign was excellent with some deft handling skills being notably added to his work-rate and breakdown presence.

However, his form has arguably been not quite as sharp this season and will be put to the test tomorrow by a Springbok back row which includes the superb number eight Duane Vermeulen even though Henry might fancy his chances against opposite number Tebo Mohoje, who will only be winning his fourth cap.

Back to the big news of the day though and the official line was that as Payne and Henshaw had trained together at the start of the week's preparation - D'Arcy had shipped a calf problem but was ultimately fit for selection - the decision to keep them together was simply pragmatic and was presumably one based on their attacking strengths rather than the now more defensively minded D'Arcy.

All that seemed fair enough and, as usual, Schmidt was candid about his decision but it was still difficult to shake-off the lingering concern that a completely untried partnership was going to take on the in-form and wonderfully tuned South African side which possesses a more than pretty decent midfield in Jean de Villiers and Jan Serfontein.

Indeed, neither Payne nor Henshaw seem, on paper, to be an ideal fit as the Kiwi has spent most of his time at Ulster playing full-back - where he always looks that bit more comfortable having slightly more time to weigh up his options - while Henshaw has been performing with Connacht mostly at outside centre or full-back.

So, essentially this centre combination has been grafted from expediency rather than something which has been shown to be workable at Test level with Schmidt admitting that as the two had begun the week he didn't really see the point of changing the preparation to allow D'Arcy in later on.

Of course, Ireland have been hugely fortunate to have had the O'Driscoll/D'Arcy combination playing together at club level for so many years so with the former gone there was never going to be another ready-made situation being transplanted into the national set-up.

That's fair enough but to parachute Payne in for his first cap against South Africa is asking a lot of the 29-year-old who, admittedly, has not looked particularly sharp of late with the Ulster number 13 on his back.

And Henshaw - the 21-year-old has already been backed by O'Driscoll as his most likely successor - is being grafted into a position he is not particularly familiar with never mind the situation with Payne who will be standing beside him and playing at this level for the first time.

Still, Schmidt has clearly seen something and the element of surprise just might be something which works in Ireland's favour if both players are composed and controlled in their work which is bound to be highly skills-based rather than just trying to bosh the opposition.

There could also be some interchanging of positions as the players were being asked to do this during the week's training though putting the slighter Payne in at inside centre for any particular reason may not be sufficient to bring out the best in Henshaw.

And should things go spectacularly wrong there is always Ian Madigan on the bench though, again, he is primarily there to cover for Johnny Sexton.

Still, despite the concerns this is a huge achievement for former Auckland Blues player Payne who came to Ulster in 2011 with Irish qualification in mind. Now that he has got there, you hope that this tumultuous-looking introduction to Test rugby will give him the opportunity to show his tremendous ability to find space and create it for others.

And with the World Cup a year away, a strong showing against the might of South Africa could help Payne no end in marketing his strengths to Schmidt as the coach ponders what to do about dealing with this tricky post-O'Driscoll situation along with that of the ageing D'Arcy who may well get his run-out against the Wallabies, a game Schmidt is believed to have primarily targeted as winnable.

For all, though, the immediate challenge could hardly be tougher against one of the world's best sides who just happen to be in very robust health.

But, then again, the Ulster contingent maybe know only too well what this feels like having played Toulon a mere two weeks ago.

Belfast Telegraph


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