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Dublin: 4°C Sunday 16 May 2021

'You could play him at 10 and he'd do a job' - Payne shows class for Ulster

The 30-year-old Ireland international was in superb form in yesterday’s win over Oyonnax.

THERE’S A CLASS about Jared Payne at fullback, an almost languid coolness on the ball as he repeatedly makes a good decision on whether to beat a defender, hit a teammate early or opt for the boot.

Jared Payne scores a try Payne has made a sparkling return at 15. Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

The last 14 months with Ireland and Ulster have also shown that the 30-year-old is an outside centre of high quality, though his skillset is understandably more compressed in the tighter spaces of midfield.

There is every chance Payne’s international career will continue in the centre, but getting the opportunity to see him pick apart a disorganised Oyonnax defence from fullback at Kingspan Stadium yesterday was a joy.

Only recently recovered from the foot injury that ended his World Cup campaign, the 10-times capped Ireland international created tries, scored one of his own, countered with utter effectiveness and allowed his teammates to thrive all around him.

Such was the excellence of Payne’s display at fullback – where he has the majority of his professional playing experience – that there is a genuine argument for Joe Schmidt to pick him there for the Six Nations opener against Wales next month.

Ireland have struggled to break the Welsh down in their most recent full-strength meetings and the introduction of Payne at fullback could potentially alter how Ireland challenge Shaun Edwards’ masterful defence.

At Ulster, meanwhile, the extensive stock of superb centres means the deployment of Payne at 15 makes sense, allowing Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Darren Cave and Stuart Olding to compete in midfield.

Les Kiss, however, says Ulster won’t be pinning Payne into one position.

“We’ll use him in both, without a doubt,” said the Ulster director of rugby after his side’s 56-3 win yesterday.

Jared Payne on the attack The Ulsterman ripped Oyonnax apart at times. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Coming back from his foot injury, from our perspective and his perspective, to start from 15 was a good way to work his way back into the game. He finished the game there at 13 and you could see his influence there as well.

“He’s a class player. You could play him at 10 and he’d do a job for you. It’s nice to have him back, that’s for sure. Not only from our perspective, but also for Ireland.”

The impression of Payne at 15 is that he relishes the additional space he is afforded in the backfield and the opportunity to sit back and scan the defence from a deeper position, before inserting himself into the line with ideal timing.

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Perhaps more importantly than his own enjoyment, Payne seems to use that additional space and time far more effectively than others do.

“I think when he’s got the extra space, he plays it exceptionally well,” said Kiss. “However, I’ve seen enough of him – and we all have – to know that when he hasn’t got that space, he’s still very savvy to be able to pick the line he needs to.

“With space and without space he is effective and I think we saw today a bit of both. When he came in and had to fill up that frontline at 13, he had enough nous to work to the plan and our shape, to actually just release the ball to space and place himself to be able to connect the game into areas that we’ve got numbers.

“If I had to play him at wing, I think he’d play brilliantly for us.”

Jared Payne is tackled by Daniel Ikpefan and Guillaume Bousses Payne picked up a foot injury during the World Cup. Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

It will be fascinating to see how Schmidt views Payne moving forward, though it is true that the Kiwi head coach has invested much time into the Payne/Robbie Henshaw pairing in midfield.

That said, if you’re not looking to progress and improve, you’re moving backwards. At Ulster, Payne’s teammates are simply glad to have one of the best rugby brains in the squad back out on the pitch.

“Jared coming back in looks like he’s never missed a game,” said the Ulster scrum-half Paul Marshall, who was excellent against Oyonnax. “He’s straight back in and playing so well and it’s seamless for him.

He’s an incredibly smart rugby player and I think you probably only appreciate that as you get to see him day in, day out. His rugby brain is just fantastic, he makes the right decision nearly every time and he just sees space. Whether it be at 13 or 15, he just seems to be gliding on the ball. He’s a formidable rugby player, he’s got it all.”

Cave’s return from injury yesterday was a successful one too, while Olding played at 13 for Ulster A on Friday night after 10 months out with an ACL injury.

Ulster’s backline options are certainly a source of envy for others – how Munster could use one of these centres – but Marshall is just enjoying the prospect of seeing their impact grow and grow.

“It’s class,” said Marshall. “Whenever you think that that whole backline is here next year, plus Charles Piutau to come, it’s mouthwatering really. It’s exciting, there’s going to be competition for places, within the Irish set-up as well. You could have an all-Ulster centre pairing potentially.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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