Jared Payne’s return a boost for Ulster – and Ireland
Les Kiss will be looking for bonus points in three upcoming games against Italian clubs
Jared Payne: back from injury and will start on the bench against Zebre. Photograph: Darren Kidd/Presseye/Inpho
Zebre v Ulster, Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, Sunday (12.30, Irish time)
The wider Irish rugby community, along with Ulster’s supporters, will be delighted Jared Payne is returning to the competitive arena for the first time since suffering a kidney injury against Australia in the November Test series.
Payne was expected to be out for three months and at the time it was speculated that he could miss the entire Six Nations Championship. Ulster coach Les Kiss has named him among the replacements with the probability that injuries permitting, he could see 20 or 30 minutes on the comeback trail.
There was further good news after Stuart Olding (elbow) and Charles Piutau (knee) successfully rehabilitated their injury issues to come back into a three-quarter line that includes Tommy Bowe, the latter making his 150th appearance for the province, dating back to his debut in 2004.
It’s a significant milestone for Bowe and in recent matches he has been shaking free the rust from an enforced period on the sideline through injury.
Jacob Stockdale scored two tries last week against Glasgow and there’s an argument to describe him as one of the top three outside backs playing provincial rugby during the Six Nations.
The key for Ulster will be getting some ball and in that respect coach Less Kiss has unveiled a complete new front five from last week, Speaking of in-form players, Robbie Diack’s handling gives his team a different dimension and certainly facilitates their expansive approach while Marcel Coetzee has been superb in his two performances to date.
Zebre include three permit players Dennis Bergamin, Davide Fragnito and Simone Balocchi but have benefitted from Italy’s head coach Conor O’Shea’s decision to allow three Italian internationals to play club rugby this weekend: Tommaso Boni, Federico Ruzza and Joshua Furno.
This match begins a run of three for Ulster against Italian opposition, as they will welcome both Zebre and Benetton Treviso to Belfast in the coming weeks. The targets are obvious, starting Sunday lunchtime.
ZEBRE: D Berryman; M Bellini, T Boni, M Pratichetti, L Greeff; S Bordoli, G Palazzani; B Postiglioni, O Fabiani, G Roan; G Koegelenberg, V Bernabo (capt); D Bergamin, J Meyer, F Ruzza. Replacements: S Tobias, A De Marchi, B Le Roux, J Furno, D Fragnito, C Engelbrecht, T Castello, S Balocchi.
ULSTER: J Stockdale; T Bowe, L Marshall, S Olding, C Piutau; P Nelson, R Pienaar; A Warwick, R Herring (capt), W Herbst; R Diack, A O’Connor; C Ross, C Henry, M Coetzee. Replacements: J Andrew, C Black, R Lutton, K Treadwell, S Reidy, P Marshall, J Payne, D Busby.
Referee: S Gallagher (Ireland)