JARED PAYNE RETURNS for Ulster tomorrow night in the 13 shirt against Leinster at Ravenhill, but if the Kiwi is forced into an aerial battle at any stage, he will be watched intently.
There is likely to be relief in his first clean take of a high ball, although the possible presence of Ireland fullback Rob Kearney may complicate the matter somewhat. The Leinster man possesses superb fielding skills himself and will look to make gains for his side in that area.
Kearney is a fan of Payne’s, and acknowledges that the New Zealand native is set for Irish caps after he becomes eligible in September. However, the Louth man jokes that Payne should be pushing for the outside centre jersey, rather than aiming to line out at 15.
He’s a quality player, really good. I think the things that stand out most about Jared are that he has a lot of time on the ball, he’s a good defender, his distribution skills are very good and he’s got quite a clever kicking game.
“A lot of those attributes could suit him well at thirteen. I’ve no doubt that when he does become eligible for Ireland that, hopefully, they will look at him at thirteen”.
Kearney points out that “I have only played against Jared once,” meaning he is unable to comment with certainty on whether the Ulsterman would have the necessary physical attributes to adapt his game to midfield at international level.
“There is a huge amount of technique involved in it,” says Kearney. “Brian [O'Driscoll] commits 100% to the tackle every time, whereas some guys will give maybe 70%-85% with their shoulder. Brian always leads full-on, but Jared is deceptively strong.”
Payne’s most recent appearance for Ulster ended with the infamous red card for his tackle on Alex Goode, with a two-week suspension having kept him out of action ever since.
Even as a fellow member of the fullback fraternity, Kearney admits that it remains difficult to judge whether a sending off was warranted.
I hurt my shoulder badly at the start of the season against Munster, the exact same thing happened,” he says at the launch of the Herald Leinster Rugby Summer Camps. “There was a collision in the air but Zebo was up in the air too.
“When both guys are up in the air and there’s a collision, well then, that is just part and parcel. It is when one person is on the ground. The IRB sent out a four-minute video last week of high ball catches that are acceptable and unacceptable and how they deemed their level of severity.
“Their ruling is, regardless of whether your eyes are on the ball, you’re in the wrong [if you're on the ground]. Because guys are getting better at contesting kicks, we’re going to see more and more of it over the next year or so.”
“It probably was a little harsh, the call, but I can’t say it should have definitely been a yellow and I think there was a little bit of merit to it being a red too.”
Kearney will head into any aerial battle against Payne, or the rest of what he accepts is an in-form Ulster back three, with utter confidence. The 28-year-old is enjoying an excellent season, counter-attacking powerfully and providing real leadership from the back.
The impression is of a player bringing more open aggression and enjoyment to his game than before, but Kearney says any shift in approach has not been consciously made.
No, maybe a fraction. There is no real explanation for it. Last year was a really difficult year for me because I had my back surgery, got a little bit of form back in April and May and got on the Lions tour which I found particularly enjoyable for the reason that I wasn’t playing.
“A lot builds up, you’ve a lot to prove. Time to make up for the season before, but I wouldn’t have made a conscious decision.”
Rob Kearney was on hand at St Patrick’s Boys National School, Hollypark, Blackrock in Dublin yesterday to help out with a surprise training session to mark the launch of The Herald Leinster Rugby Summer Camps, which run in venues across the province throughout July and August. For more details log onto www.leinsterrugby.ie