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'I’m happy wherever' - Payne leaving Ireland's 13 or 15 call up to Schmidt

The 30-year-old Ulsterman is eager to get more games under his belt.

ANOTHER WEEK, ANOTHER tongue in cheek suggestion that Jared Payne might be lining out in the 10 shirt.

This time it comes from the man himself and this time it’s at Carton House, rather than Kingspan Stadium.

Jared Payne Payne was in good humour at Carton House today. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Ulster’s director of rugby, Les Kiss, suggested after Payne’s superb performance at fullback against Oyonnax in the Champions Cup last month that he could play the Ireland international at out-half or on the wing and he’d be effective.

Payne’s Ulster teammates rate him as the single best player in their squad, while Ireland’s squad members and coaching staff rave about what he brings to the plate in terms of vision, intelligence, appreciation of space and defensive cohesion.

The 30-year-old only returned last month from the foot injury he sustained at the World Cup, but his displays in the Champions Cup against Saracens and Oyonnax were both impressive.

Payne started that pair of European games at 15 before slotting into the midfield late on in the fixtures, with his excellence at fullback leading to strong calls for Joe Schmidt to start him in that position this weekend against Wales.

They’re pushing me into 10 once or twice,” said Payne with a smile when asked about his current positional preference at Carton House today.

“I have been training all over the shop the last few weeks. I’m happy wherever. As long as you get on the field, after the first two or three phases, you get to play pretty much what’s in front of you and that’s when you start to enjoy the game.

“I’m not too fussed where I get put. I’ll wait for Joe to make that call and do my job on the weekend.”

Jared Payne Payne's distribution is a strength of his game. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

It’s a valid point from Payne regarding general attack and how numbers on backs are perhaps not as important beyond the prescribed early phases after the set-piece. That said, it’s undeniable that the space afforded to a fullback is greater than that which a centre enjoys.

Counter-attack and kick return is the obvious area where a fullback has relatively more time on the ball to use their vision and evasiveness to create openings.

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It’s something that Payne has demonstrated well in his two most recent games, but he underlines that the space given to him by a struggling Top 14 outfit like Oyonnax is worlds away from the stifling chase Wales will present on Sunday.

If that opportunity presents itself… it’ll be a pretty tough game at the back against Wales; they are a pretty good kick-chase team,” said Payne.

“You might not get as much time at the back as you’d like. It’s more about being good in the air, physically covering the grass: if you get the chance you have to try and light it up, don’t you?”

Many may be dreaming of a start at fullback for Payne, who can certainly ‘light it up,’ but the more likely call from Schmidt looks to be that the Ulsterman will renew his centre partnership with Robbie Henshaw.

Payne says the “big tank” Stuart McCloskey and “great footballer” Garry Ringrose are both impressive options for Joe Schmidt in the short-term and long-term future in midfield, though himself and Henshaw have the benefit of recent Test experience.

Jared Payne Payne now has 10 Ireland caps. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Against a powerful midfield duo of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies, the combination of Payne and Henshaw may prove valuable.

“They’re big boys, very accomplished footballers, have played a lot of rugby together and they have a great partnership there with [Dan] Biggar running the show,” said Payne of the Welsh midfield. “It’s definitely a challenge.

They probably came out on top the last time. As a group they dominated us, so it is up to us this time to stand up to them and try and match them physically and bring a little extra in attack.”

Payne has shone since his return from that long-term spell on the sidelines after surgery to repair his broken foot – he says he was “probably forcing the [Ireland] physios to let me limp around for a few days” before the fracture was confirmed by an x-ray – but is frustrated not to have more game time under his belt ahead of the Six Nations.

“I was actually thinking to myself that I haven’t played much rugby; haven’t got too many consecutive games which is disappointing,” said Payne.

“I would rather have a few miles on the clock. I am not a big fan of training and rehabbing, I’d rather be playing. It’s a bit annoying but you take the positives and I guess I’m fresh and eager and keen to get out there.”

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Murray Kinsella

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