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Versatile Jared Payne to stay centre of attention for Ireland


Different role: Jared Payne can perform at fullback or centre

Different role: Jared Payne can perform at fullback or centre

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Stuart Olding

Stuart Olding

©INPHO/Giuseppe Fama

Different role: Jared Payne can perform at fullback or centre

With so much on the line for all four provinces in the season's final month, talk of the national side will take a back seat for the coming weeks, but nothing stirs debate quite like an interpro.

Leinster will make the trip to Belfast next Saturday with the result set to have a huge bearing on the play-off positions, but some interested observers will, no doubt, be keeping an eye on the opposing fullbacks.

Jared Payne has been a star turn for Ulster in his five provincial outings there this season while, with Rob Kearney making his comeback from a lingering hamstring complaint in Leinster's win over Edinburgh last weekend, the game should see the two best 15s in Ireland going head-to-head.

Such a battle, especially with a tour to South Africa now little over six weeks away, would usually spark talk of Test spots up for grabs but that likely won't be the case this time around.

There seems to be an understanding that, even in emergency, Payne will not find himself at fullback on the international stage.

Having endured a serious Achilles injury only a handful of games into his Ulster tenure, a stand-out second season sparked talk of an Ireland career when he qualified on residency in time for the 2014/15 season.

With the legendary Brian O'Driscoll retiring, a successor was needed and, with his three-year eligibility on the horizon, a more permanent shift to the centre soon arrived for Payne, but arguments quickly arose over the deployment.

His recent run of form back in his more familiar position will no doubt start the debate anew.

Of his 17 Ulster tries, just three have come during his 18 appearances in the centre, but away from the headline-grabbing act of crossing the whitewash, it is his ability to counter-attack, pick lines, and seemingly always choose the right option with ball in hand that make him so tantalising an option as an international full-back.

In the tighter confines of the Test arena, however, he has been relied upon as a defensive lynchpin in the midfield and that seems sure to be the way it stays.

All of his caps have come in the 13 jersey while, when Kearney missed time, it has been Simon Zebo who manned the full-back position.

Indeed, citing his importance to the team's defensive system, Joe Schmidt revealed that the decision to move Payne hadn't really been considered ahead of the Italy game this year.

"We haven't trained with Jared at 15 so it would be a big step for us to suddenly change that," said the head coach at the time.

Considering that this was a set-up which had Ian Madigan occasionally training at scrum-half during the build up to the World Cup, it was a statement that said everything of the chances we would see the Aucklander at full back for Ireland.

A man of few words, consider instead the opinion of a teammate.

Stuart Olding, who himself knows about switching between midfield and fullback, this week called Payne the best he has ever played with.

"Jared has been unbelievable at fullback," he said." He's been in sensational form.

"I think it's because he's such a smart player, probably the smartest player I've ever played with. He's probably the best player I've ever played with.

"He just knows where to be. He scans everything and reads the game really well. At fullback he seems to have this injection of pace, an eye for a gap and always seems to make the right call.

It's a privilege to have him in our team"

The consensus seems to be Payne is so good he will add great value wherever he is selected.

Is he Ulster's best full-back? Certainly. But more valuable to Ireland as an outside centre? The only man who matters still thinks so.

Belfast Telegraph