Dan McFarland praises ‘matured’ James Hume ahead of Connacht clash

Ulster centre capable of burnishing growing reputation in much-anticipated tie

With so much uncertainty surrounding the ever-changing landscape due to Covid-19's tightening grip, it was diverting to hear about on-pitch matters ahead of the much-anticipated St Stephen's Day interpro between Ulster and Connacht.

And despite all the background noise, Ulster defence coach Jared Payne was in fairly upbeat mood regarding the return to URC action when Ulster – coming off an impressive two wins from two in Europe – host Andy Friend's squad who, just over two months ago, thumped the northern province at the Aviva Stadium.

Dan McFarland will be seeking his pound of flesh for that 36-11 result. Though Payne wasn't for lingering too much on that memory and, instead, was keen to address the continuing rise to prominence of Ulster centre James Hume who produced another top-drawer display in last week's victory over Northampton Saints.

"He's playing very well," said former Ireland centre Payne of 23-year-old Hume who made his Test bow last summer.

“He’s put in a lot of work off the pitch on all aspects of his game. He’s matured a lot in the last year-and-a-half and worked very hard to get to where he is. So it’s good to see him getting the reward. He’s still got a bit of work to do on his try celebrations though,” added Payne with a smile.

Hume’s partnership with Stuart McCloskey has been a notably effective combination, though the latter pulled up early with a hamstring problem against the Saints and may be missing for a while.

For Payne, Hume’s future hopes of adding to his solitary Ireland cap are predicated on him continuing to operate at his current elevated level and no better time to be doing that than over the festive interpros.

“Ireland are very lucky with the depth they have in that position [centre] and the quality they’ve got there. For James, it’s about that consistency of performance,” said Payne.

“If he keeps doing what he’s doing and keeps putting his best foot forward then it’ll be pretty hard for Ireland to be ignoring that. He’s good on both sides of the ball. He’s very good in defence and very good in attack. He’s a complete player at the moment.”

And as for Sunday's home clash with Connacht, who snatched a last-gasp losing bonus point at Leicester Tigers on Sunday, Payne is adamant that Ulster will bring plenty of their recent form and attitude to this encounter even if there may be some squad rotation.

“This time of the year there will be chopping and changing, it’s just the way it is,” said Payne. “But there always is [a buzz] every time you play rugby, in some shape or form.

“It’s about channelling that the right way and making sure you turn up on Sunday ready to play. There are a few motivators for us this week so I’m sure the boys will tap into those pretty well and enjoy Christmas but, at the same time, be ready to go on Sunday.”

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