Payne poised for weekend return to boost Ulster hopes
Jared Payne is expected to return to action against Saracens this weekend in a massive boost to Ulster's bid for a Champions Cup quarter-final spot.
The Irish international has been out of action since fracturing his foot during the World Cup last autumn with the original prognosis predicting two months on the sidelines.
His recovery has been slower than expected but the naturalised Kiwi was added to Ulster's European squad last Thursday.
Having been back on the paddock this week, should the 30-year-old come through Friday's training without reaction he is expected to be named in the side to face the pool leaders.
Ulster are currently in second place, with a contest against Oyonnax to come following the trip to Allianz Park, and have a real chance of progressing to the last eight as one of three best runners-up even if they cannot overhaul Saturday's opponents.
With Ireland's Six Nations campaign set to begin with the visit of Wales on February 7, Payne's return is a timely boost not just for Les Kiss but his former employers.
The ten-times capped Tauranga native was Joe Schmidt's outside centre of choice throughout last season's victorious Six Nations, where he forged a fine partnership with Connacht's Robbie Henshaw.
A classy operator with ball in hand, and having become something of a linchpin in defence, Payne kept his place for the World Cup and impressed in his two games at the tournament.
With Luke Marshall having excelled in Ulster's 13 jersey throughout this season, the former Auckland Blue could start this weekend at full-back.
Louis Ludik is receiving treatment for an abductor strain, and with Craig Gilroy set for a return to the wing, Kiss's options at 15 would be limited.
Payne is no stranger to the position having played there for the majority of his career before making the move into midfield during recent seasons.