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Playing through Payne: Fullback holds the key to Ulster's season

After an unforgiving start to his time in Ireland, Jared Payne is desperate to keep playing

Image: ©INPHO/Presseye/Darren Kidd

AS ULSTER SLIPPED to a third straight game without a win on Friday night, coaches and supporters alike would have been forgiven for putting secondary importance on the result for just a minute.

Fullback Jared Payne – the player who this season has perhaps encapsulated the style offered to the league by the northern province – let a grimace escape as his hand lowered towards his groin in the second half.

Though he finished the game out, any kind of tweak for the Kiwi could prove a devastating outcome as Ulster turn towards a trip to face Leinster and then, the big one, to Saracens in Twickenham.

“It is going to be a massive three weeks.” Says Payne as TheScore.ie corners him in Newforge. ”You’re actually playing for something, which makes you motivated, which is nice.

“Certainly, the Saracens game will decide our fate in that [Heineken Cup], so that’ll be a big game. But These next two weeks as well, just hanging on in the Rabo: there are five or six teams that are up there, so it’s just as important and it’s also going to be important for us to right the wrongs as such and hopefully get our game back on track.”

Payne’s debut season at Ulster was cruelly chopped down just as it got started. An ankle injury after 15 minutes of his third appearance ruled him out for a year and prompted David Humphreys to ask Stefan Terblanche to fill the number 15 shirt during his Indian summer.

The last thing the 27-year-old wants now, is another opportunity to go home while someone else does his job.

“Home is where mum is.” Payne says with an easy grin.

It’s Tuesday, and he’s still unclear whether the following day’s training session will prove the groin injury he carried into 2013 is fully cleared up.

“When I initially suffered the injury I went back home and got a bit of sun and rested up a bit.” His mum, and the sun, are currently in Cambridge, Waikato, on New Zealand’s north island.

His time since returning to Belfast is described with a weary look as “trying to get fit again.” And all the while he’s been out, Ulster’s seemingly unassailable 11-point lead in the Pro12 has been obliterated by Glasgow and, last night, Leinster. Once nailed on for a home quarter final, Mark Anscombe’s side now sit third.

YouTube credit: TheUAFC

Despite Friday’s loss – a result which might have been very different had Paddy Jackson been on target with three second half penalties – and the lack of game-time under his belt, Payne’s class shone through.

His on-the-run grubber kick was as unconventional as it was effective, and it was perfectly weighted to allow Andrew Trimble pounce for one of only two Ulster scores in the game.

©INPHO/Presseye/Graham Stuart

Much is made of the South African influence around Ravenhill, but maybe it was a little bit of a Pacific islander’s ethos that allowed him the freedom to attempt the little flash of skill in a losing position.

“It definitely helps to have a few Kiwis around.” He says pondering his nearby coach, as well as Nick Williams and John Afoa who all hail from one small rugby hot-bed on the far side of the world.

“You’ve got your own jokes and stuff you understand: Johnny and Nick are north islanders too – two brown boys and white guy – though they can still speak Samoan so I can’t understand them sometimes.” He said with a laugh, before straightening his face, perhaps feeling a duty to reflect the rest of the team’s contribution.

“We’re lucky with the mixture we’ve got; South Africans Australians, New Zealanders, Irish… It’s good.”

The challenge for Ulster over the next 13 days, is to make it better.

Madigan inspires Leinster to thrilling win

As it happened: Munster v Connacht, RaboDirect Pro12

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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