Jared Payne's decision to retire from professional rugby while denying Ulster and Ireland the services of an outstanding player is eminently sensible when weighed against his future wellbeing and offers a sobering reminder of the brain trauma or concussion issues that cannot be rinsed from the sport.
The blow is partially softened by the fact the New Zealand-born player has been appointed defence coach at Ulster – quite apart from his attacking brio, he was celebrated as an excellent defender both individually and in organising those around him – and will also join Ireland with a watching brief pertinent to his new role during their three-match tour to Australia next month.
The 32-year-old hasn't played a match since complaining of feeling unwell on being replaced after 76 minutes of the British & Irish Lions tour match against the Chiefs in New Zealand last summer. The initial symptoms were a headache but when on the bus heading for the captain's run in the build-up to the Hurricanes game the following week, he felt very unwell and withdrew.
Battery of tests
He underwent a battery of tests and an MRI scan and spent some time at home in Tauranga before rejoining his teammates at Ulster in mid September. He returned to the gym and the training pitch, periodically and while he was symptom free for days at a time, the migraine headaches would always return.
The occasional sight of him as Ulster’s “water boy” on match days offered a glimmer of hope that he would one day resume his career but the longer the playing hiatus the more that receded. He was a tough cookie too, coming back from a torn cruciate knee ligament injury that delayed the start to his Ulster career in 2011 and also a lacerated kidney against Australia in November 2016.
Payne was a brilliant player blessed with an astute rugby brain, his angles of running in attack, appreciation of space and range of passing rendered him a nightmare to defend, while he also had a discernible presence on both sides of the ball.
He made 78 appearances for Ulster (105 points), and following a three-year qualification period on residency grounds, the New Zealander made his Ireland debut against the Springboks in November 2014; he went on to win 20 caps, scoring four tries before being selected to tour with the Lions to New Zealand last summer, playing three matches.
He said of the decision: “It’s been a good ride but unfortunately every good thing has to come to an end. Playing rugby has taken me to places I never thought I’d see and allowed me meet people I never thought I’d meet.
“Firstly, I’d like to thank my parents for all their help in my younger years and my brother Josh for being a live tackle bag! Thanks also to the coaches and teammates throughout the years that have made living this dream possible, and to the staff, volunteers and fans that make game days so special.
“The support that I’ve received from my partner Chrissie and sons Jake and Tyler, particularly over the past 12 months, has been incredible.
“I would like to thank all of the medical professionals who have supported me since my injury occurred back in June last year. I’m extremely grateful for your considerable care and attention.
“While I will undoubtedly miss the buzz of running out with mates every weekend, I have to listen to the medical advice and unfortunately give up the dream. However, I’ve surprised myself how much I have enjoyed coaching and I’m really looking forward to getting my teeth into this role on a permanent basis.
“Finally, I’d like to thank the management here at Ulster for giving me the opportunity to contribute in this way and I look forward to trying to repay the faith shown in me.”
The IRFU's performance director, David Nucifora, confirmed that he would travel to Australia with Joe Schmidt's coaching team. "It is unfortunate that Jared's playing career has been cut short as he was such a positive influence for both Ulster and Ireland. We are delighted that he has joined Ulster's coaching group as he has the rugby intellect to thrive as a coach and has illustrated his credentials and potential with Ulster over the past few months.
“As an investment in his development Jared will spend some time with the Ireland set-up on the summer tour to Australia working with the national coaches.”
Irish players recently retired because of concussion issues
Declan Fitzpatrick: The Birmingham born tighthead prop won seven caps for Ireland and played for Ulster until he was 31 but was forced to retire in April, 2015 after suffering a series of concussions.
Kevin McLaughlin: The former Leinster captain made 115 appearances for the province and won eight caps for Ireland before being forced out of the game a couple of weeks shy of his 31st birthday.
Nathan White: The New Zealand born tighthead prop, who played for Leinster and Connacht and Ireland, retired on medical advice in September, 2016. He won test 13 caps making his debut, aged 33.
Dave McSharry: The former Connacht centre (65 appearances) who played for Ireland A retired at just 26, on the advice of a specialist following a series of concussive related incidents.