WHEN JARED PAYNE signed with Ulster from Auckland Blues in the summer of 2011, head coach Brian McLaughlin spoke in eager anticipation about the Kiwi leading the province’s backline.
Some 15 months later, and with McLaughlin shunted out to a developmental role, Payne scored his first competitive try in white.
The 26-year-old was three games into his debut season at Ulster when an Achilles’ injury picked up against Benetton Treviso scuttled playing plans for eight months.
The comeback process was painful, laborious and often carried out solo in the gym as his tendons healed and a hobble turned to a limp and again to a jog.
Ulster coach Mark Anscombe reveals Payne is not yet back to optimum speed but he certainly showed enough pace and power on Friday evening to lacerate the Munster defence early in the second-half and score a crucial try.
The tragic loss of Ulster teammate Nevin Spence less than 24 hours later has since put thoughts of the Pro12 game and the triumphs and travails of rugby into perspective.
Payne’s club career began with Northland in New Zealand and his talents were soon spotted by the Chiefs.
He spent two seasons there before moving on to Crusaders and then Blues. If he was comfortable at the Super Rugby level but, with competition from the likes of Mils Muliaina and Israel Dagg, a glittering All Blacks career did not appear likely.
Ulster man-of-the-match Jared Payne with Claire Conroy (RaboDirect). (©INPHO/Dan Sheridan)
His form in the opening pre-season and Pro12 games must make Ulster supporters feel as if they have a new signing.
With Adam D’Arcy making tentative steps to full fitness and Stefan Terblanche not tempted to prolong his brief Arsenal adventure it looks as if the Number 15 jersey is in Payne’s possession.
Praise from on high
Ulster coach Mark Anscombe acknowledged the impact that his fellow Kiwi has made on the team’s bright start to the season but hinted that there was more to come. He said:
We’ve got to be patient and got to remember what he did last year. You look at anyone ho has done their Achilles’ and it is going to take time, about 12 months, and it is not 12 months yet.
“He is frustrated with it himself as he has not got the speed, it hasn’t returned, that he is capable of. That’s going to come.
“In every outing he has had so far, he has got better and better. Give him another month or whatever and we’ll start to see the capabilities of what Jared Payne can actually do.”