Relishing chance to hop back on the bike
Ulster’s Jared Payne hopes he can put his recent injury woes behind him, writes GERRY THORNLEY
This time last year Jared Payne needed a therapeutic Christmas back home in New Zealand. Almost three months previously, and in only the third game of his first overseas’ adventure with Ulster, he ruptured his Achilles tendon, rendering him housebound for the first month of his recuperation from surgery. This Christmas Payne will be playing rugby, which is fine by him.
Tonight will be Payne’s 17th game of the season, including three pre-season friendlies, and he’s been like a new signing. That Ulster have added a few attacking strings to their bow is in large measure due to his playmaking skills.
He has good footwork, hands, a shrewd kicking game and plays with his head up, and his gifted attacking game was seen at its finest in a man-of-the-match performance away to Northampton a fortnight ago.
For sure he’ll be thinking of home next week, but he will be granted a fortnight off when the Six Nations starts for a well-earned rest and trip home. “I’m much happier this year being out on the field as opposed to watching. You want to be playing rugby and you want to be winning and I’ve been lucky enough to be doing both,” he says.
His try against Northampton was his sixth in a dozen competitive starts, and the “motorbike” celebration was for Paul Scutt, a friend back home. “He’s got a flooring company called Triple 9R, named after a motorbike, and he wanted me to do a motorbike rally each time I scored. I started doing it with the Blues and Northland, so I thought I may as well do it there; get him on TV, and he was pretty happy with that,” he explains.
Payne appears to be getting better with every game, so it’s slightly surprising to hear him say he’s still a little frustrated with where he’s at physically. “The leg is still not quite as strong and bouncy as the other one, and I’ve got another few little niggles – the groin and stuff like that – as a result of favouring one side a bit too much, as happens when you come back from a serious injury,” says Payne.
“But hopefully I can get through them and be hitting my peak maybe in the next couple of months if I treat them right.”
The respite at home and some sunshine will be in time for his mum Megan’s 50th birthday. She, and subsequently his dad Doug came over to Belfast to nurse him back to health after his operation, while Craig Gilroy, who lived downstairs was a regular visitor along with Chris Henry and Darren Cave.
They were, he admits, pretty tough times. “You go through those times when you doubt whether you’ll make it back but I concentrated on little goals – getting the scar to heal, learning to walk, jogging, step by step I focused on the small things and the Ulster organisation as a whole looked after me, which made it easier.”
His younger brother Josh represented New Zealand in rowing, but Payne is the first to play rugby. Hailing from Tauranga, a port city on the northern shoreline in the Bay of Plenty, Payne is as laidback as he appears on the pitch and explains very matter-of-factly: “It was just what all my friends were doing when we were younger and it’s something I’ve always loved. Back at school (Papa Moa Primary School) it’s the first thing you do. You pick up a rugby ball and charge around with your mates and I’ve just been doing it ever since.”
He didn’t even make the school’s first team until his penultimate year in school, but from there he turned up for the Waikato schools’ trial. “There was a new coach, he decided to pick me and it all went well from there,” he says.
Payne played for the New Zealand Under-21s, and after a year with Waikato was called up by the Chiefs in 2007, only to be released. In 2008, he made the fateful decision to move to Northland “to get a bit of rugby” and in 2009 the Crusaders signed him up.
“For the Crusaders to come and ask you if you wanted to play for them was pretty huge. Just being able to go down there and learn off the likes of Richie (McCaw), Dan Carter, Leon McDonald was awesome. It helped my career massively.”
After 22 Super games with the Crusaders in two years, he moved to the Auckland Blues to play for Pat Lam and Bryce Woodward, his coach at Northland, scoring five tries in 12 games en route to the 2011 semi-finals. Woodward, especially, brought the best out of him in what he admits was “probably my best year of rugby to date”.
So why make the move to Ulster? “I’ve always wanted to play overseas, to do a bit of travelling and see the world. Opportunity came at that time and I thought I might not get another chance to,” says Payne.
When he initially arrived as a “special project” there was a notion of him being a long-term option at outside centre, although as events have transpired all bar three of his appearances for Ulster have been at fullback.
“Probably now that I’m getting a bit older and slower, centre might be my position of the future. I can’t keep up with all these young guys like Gilly (Craig Gilroy) on the wing any more, but at the moment I’m just happy to be on the field and playing either 13 or 15.”
Payne is under contract until the end of next season, at which point (aged 28) he would qualify for Ireland through residency.
“It’s a long time away and there’s some bloody awesome Irish players so it would be tough to get into that team but if I was lucky enough to be asked to play for Ireland it’s something I’d definitely be keen on,” he says.
And after last week, “I think we were slightly off upstairs”, tonight offers an immediate chance to hop back on the bike, as it were.
“I’ve watched a lot of these big Irish derbies on TV and I’m excited about playing the Heineken Cup champions. These Christmas games are pumped up pretty big so it’s going to be wicked. I’m just looking forward to getting out on the field and right the wrongs of last week.”