Jared Payne in line to return for Ulster against Saracens

Ireland centre set to play first game since injury sustained against Romania in World Cup

Jared Payne looks set to return to competitive action this weekend for the first time since damaging his foot while playing for Ireland against Romania in the World Cup, providing a double boost for Ulster coach Les Kiss and his Irish counterpart Joe Schmidt.

The New Zealand-born, Irish international, is in line to play for Ulster against pool leaders Saracens in the Champions Cup match at the Allianz Arena in north London on Saturday (3.15).

There was an initial 10-week prognosis on Payne's rehabilitation following surgery and while it's been slightly longer than first envisaged his return is timely. He's excelled for the Irish province and the national side, the latter in a burgeoning centre partnership with Robbie Henshaw.

The suggestion is that he will be named at fullback as the Ulster midfield pairing of Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall have been outstanding in his absence. Craig Gilroy, who scored one of Ulster's three tries against Oyonnax last weekend in France, wore the number 15 jersey but is likely to shift to a more familiar position of wing.


South African tighthead prop Wiehahn Herbst, and Skerries born secondrow Alan O'Connor, who has been superb this season, should return, as potentially will Andrew Trimble.

Kiss, though, will have to plan without number eight Nick Williams – he made a huge impact as a replacement last week along with Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson – who suffered a blow to the head and is following the return to play protocols.

South Africa Louis Ludik and Ireland under-20 international centre, Sam Arnold, who started on the right wing in France, are also out of the Saracens game. Ireland centre Darren Cave has returned to full-time training but may stand a better chance of returning to the match-day squad for Ulster's final pool match against Oyonnax.

In a further boost for the province, gifted centre Stuart Olding, who suffered a ruptured anterior cruciate knee ligament against Cardiff in March last year, is due to make his competitive return while playing for the Ulster Ravens against the Bedford Blues in a British & Irish Cup match at Deramore Park on Friday night (7.30).

Mark McCall's Saracens have one or two injury concerns ahead of the match and are coming off a first defeat of the season in any competition after they lost to Harlequins in an Aviva Premiership match. Prop Rhys Gill has been handed a three-match ban for a dangerous tackle and secondrow and captain George Kruis was taken off on a stretcher in the second minute of the match after catching the forearm of James Horwill; the Australian received a yellow card for his actions.

To illustrate both the English club's excellent start to the season and the magnitude of the task that Ulster face on Saturday, Saracens contribute eight players, prop Mako Vunipola, hooker  Jamie George, secondrows Maro Itoje and Kruis, number eight Billy Vunipola, outhalf Owen Farrell, wing Chris Ashton and fullback Andy Goode to the 33-man squad named by new England coach Eddie Jones for the upcoming Six Nations Championship.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer