Fears growing for Payne's season after kidney injury
Fears are growing that Jared Payne's kidney issue may keep him out for the rest of the season.
The IRFU issued an injury bulletin on Thursday that ruled the Ulster centre out for "at least three months" but it appears likely that his spell out of the game will be longer than that as he recovers from the blow he suffered in last week's win over Australia. Payne left the fray at half-time, experiencing discomfort after a tackle.
Joe Schmidt initially reported that he had taken a bang on the ribs, potentially in a 39th-minute collision with Australia flanker Michael Hooper, but further tests revealed a kidney problem.
It is understood that he has yet to re-join his Ulster colleagues, who face Cardiff Blues in Wales today.
Payne has become an increasingly important figure for both province and country, and his experienced voice in the backline will be a big loss. Ulster have options at centre and full-back, however, and won't have to recruit a short-term replacement.
For Ireland, the centre will be a big loss for the Six Nations, and he was in with a strong chance of touring with the Lions after impressing in the historic first win over his native New Zealand last month.
Meanwhile, Leinster coach Leo Cullen says any break for Johnny Sexton will be short-term as the province and the IRFU medical team look to get to the bottom of his hamstring issue.
Joe Schmidt floated the idea that the 31-year-old out-half may take time out of the game for an indefinite period after he was forced off during the November defeat to New Zealand and missed the final game of the series against Australia due to his latest muscle problem.
Cullen revealed that he had suffered a Grade 1 strain to his right hamstring, similar to the issue he carried into the autumn games on his left side.
And Cullen said the province will work with the Union to determine the best course of action; Sexton spent time at the Santry Sports Clinic this week and a decision will be taken ahead of the back-to-back European games against Northampton Saints next week.
"He's a key player in Irish rugby and everyone wants to get him back playing so. . . there has been a bit of a combined approach in trying to get him right. That's our priority," Cullen said.
"He spent a bit of time out in Santry this week and we'll see how he gets on out there and get a report early next week and we can make assessments based on that. From our point of view we just want to make sure he's fully right the next time he goes and plays."
Joey Carbery starts for the province against Dragons tonight and is likely to stand in for Sexton if he misses the Northampton games.
Elsewhere, Ulster are believed to be interested in signing Connacht scrum-half John Cooney as their replacement for Ruan Pienaar. Cooney's current deal expires at the end of this season.