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'We've been talking about it for years, but our performances haven't improved in big games' -- Jared Payne

The Ireland international says he hasn’t spoken to Joe Schmidt about whether he’ll be needed as a centre or fullback option next month.

Image: Presseye/Stephen Hamilton/INPHO

JARED PAYNE’S FIRST game back three and a half months after a foot injury wasn’t a pleasant experience.

The New Zealand-born Ireland international fractured his left foot during Ireland’s Rugby World Cup pool D win over Romania on 27 September. And the return from that issue was hampered by injuries picked up during his rehabilitation.

Payne played all 80 minutes in Allianz Park and set up the game’s opening try for Luke Marshall. However, Saracens have a habit of turning opponents’ hopes sour, and they quickly grabbed control of the game before running out 33- 17 winners.

It’s by no means the first time Payne and Ulster have experienced the anguish of losing to the self-proclaimed ‘wolf pack’ on a big stage in Europe, but it certainly doesn’t get any easier.

“It’s where we ultimately want to be,” the 30-year-old said at Kingspan Stadium today when asked about the quality consistently imposed by Saracens.

“We can take a few lessons out of the weekend, that’s for sure. We have to take those on board – we’ve been talking about that for years now and probably haven’t taken it on board, because our performances haven’t improved in big games.

“We need to start learning a bit off those teams.”

Jared Payne clay pigeon shooting Payne takes aim at a clay pigeon during a down day from Ireland training in England. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Payne is at a loss to explain why that is. If he knew, he surmises, then it wouldn’t be a problem any more.

This weekend, the game itself isn’t in the ‘big’ bracket that Saracens occupy, but a sizeable win at home to Oyonnax is crucial to getting back into the Champions Cup quarter-finals.

Their fate is not altogether in their own hands, Ulster need one or two results elsewhere to go their way even after they’re showered and changed post-match in Belfast. It’s a win with a bonus point that is non-negotiable, and Payne doesn’t balk at aiming for that.

“It is dangerous, but it’s the truth.

We need five points to have a chance to qualify and that’s what we’ll be chasing. If we can’t deal with that sort of pressure we probably don’t deserve to be in the quarters.”

If they don’t make the knock-out stages, Payne agreed with an oddly-leading question that it won’t be the end of the world if Ulster only have one trophy left to focus on.

“We think we’re good enough to get there. It will be disappointing if we don’t make it but it’s not the end of the world. The sun will come up the following day and there’ll be another competition to focus on.”

For Payne, that competition will be the Six Nations with Ireland and, possibly, a return to outside centre rather than the fullback role he played for his province this weekend. That though, is a conversation for another day.

“Joe keeps his distance. I’ll worry about that in the next week or two if I’m get picked. I’m not too worried where I play, it’s just good to be out on the field.”

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Sean Farrell

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