The Natural

After intense headaches and feeling just plain 'crap', Jared Payne has moved to a new chapter

‘Sometimes you felt like you had a bit of a hangover and other times it feels like something’s wrong in your head and you’re tempted to call A&E.’

IT’S 13 MONTHS on from Jared Payne’s final match as a professional rugby player.

Jared Payne 19/11//2016 Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

In many ways, he has well and truly moved on to the next chapter. But there are clear echoes that linger on within the Six Nations-winning Ireland international.

“The first thing I said to my partner Chrissie when (my retirement) was announced properly was: I played my first and last professional game at Waikato Stadium,” says Payne, appreciating the enormous circle a life in rugby took him through.

The New Zealand native has always presented himself as a man of few words and even less fuss, but each and every time he took the field – as a player and now as a coach – his intelligence shone through actions and spoke volumes. So to have his career ended by a neurological issue made it all the more heart-rending.

Payne comes to the side of the pitch for interview, his first since Lions duty and subsequent retirement, after presiding over Ulster’s open training session in Letterkenny RFC’s Dave Gallaher Park. He has been walking purposefully behind the defensive line for the high-tempo, low-contact session, but there’s no question of the 32-year-old filling a hole in the back-line. He has felt ‘crap’ enough over the past year and has to remain wary of inviting the symptoms on.

“I still haven’t been able to do a hell of a lot of intense exercise since I got ruled out of things.

“I don’t want to risk that and spin the wheel with anything too nasty the next day. Sometimes you feel pretty crap afterwards, and I’m not brave enough to roll the dice too much.”

Jared Payne scores their fourth try Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Since being removed from the Waikato Stadium pitch for a HIA last June, and falling short of facing the Hurricanes a week later, the concerns and troublesome feelings brought on by his head knock have remained too close for comfort. Hopes swelled and receded through last season of a return to play, but the days Payne felt sharp, well and fit to take the field were soon cancelled out by the repercussions.

“(Last season) was frustrating, it wasn’t a nice place to be in with the headaches and feeling pretty crap at times.

“It is what it is. It’s part of sport nowadays, unfortunately. Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don’t. It was challenging and it was frustrating but I’m glad to be out the other side of it and improving a little bit day by day and living a pretty normal life is good.”

“I think as a player you always think you’re pretty close and you push yourself… I could have woken up one day feeling half decent and three days later you feel pretty crap.”

Asked to fill in more detail on his symptoms, the ex-fullback and centre says:

I felt pretty crap in general. Sometimes you felt like you had a bit of a hangover and other times it feels like something’s wrong in your head and you’re tempted to call A&E because the headaches are so bad.

“So it was a bit of a variation, but it was all over the place so it was tough to determine exactly what it was.”

He adds: “The medical team were really good, we tried all sorts of stuff but it was a strange one, I’ve never had issues with it, I just never came quite right.

“It was a bit frustrating but now I feel pretty good. We called it a day and that was that.”

Payne’s second act in rugby began in January as he took charge of the northern province’s defensive duties in the wake of Les Kiss’ departure. By all accounts the Kiwi has excelled in his opening months as a coach and his development was pushed on the fast-track of exposure to Joe Schmidt’s international setup.

“It was good to go and learn what happens off the pitch. Obviously, they have high standards in what they deliver, so to see what happens off the pitch and see how they go about their business was massive for me.

“You learn every day, not just there but here as well. I learned a lot there, and I’m still learning every day.

“Joe is a good, nice guy, he’s dead on and works you hard as a player and a coach. But we get on pretty well at the same time.”

“Hopefully once the season comes about we’ll be good. You never know how it’ll go until the season comes about, do you?”

It’s always the interesting thing about coaching, or the most different thing I found about being a player: you have no control over what you’re judged on on gameday.

“As a player, you can control your actions and what you’re judged on, but as a coach you have to buckle in and enjoy the ride whether it’s good or bad. It’s entertaining to say the least!”

Jared Payne Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

His previous career allowed Payne to give fans plenty to rise off their seat for, beautiful passes, clinical kicks and devastating running lines. He helped Ulster to a 100% run through the European pool stage, big pushes in quarter-finals, Pro12 final and semi-finals before slotting into Ireland’s midfield and playing his part in seismic Test wins – not least in Chicago – and a Six Nations crown on a memorable day in Murrayfield.

He’s not interested in ranking his achievements in the game however, the journey was reward enough.

“Just getting to play rugby for as long as I did is a highlight in itself.”

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