Payne revels in helping to call shots as Ulster set hot early pace
Published 28/09/2016 | 02:30
It says much for the riches within Ulster's current three-quarters that Les Kiss can, almost blithely to those on the outside looking in, decide to cast Europe's best attacking full-back Charles Piutau on the wing.
The All Black has not lacked for potency there, as his blistering individual form suggests; nor has the team's, as their collective form confirms too.
Considering that the side will be shorn three potential midfielders this week, not to mention the absence of three Irish international wingers last week, this is no mean feat.
Ulster's Ireland midfield trio Stuart McCloskey (foot), Stuart Olding (groin) and Luke Marshall (concussion) will be absent from this week's Guinness Pro12 visit of the Ospreys on Saturday evening.
But those blows could be compensated by the return of wingers Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe and Craig Gilroy who all trained fully with the squad yesterday.
"We've got a pretty decent squad for consideration on Saturday," stressed assistant coach Allen Clarke, who said that McCloskey was in a recovery boot with a foot injury - he may be out for a month - as was Paddy Jackson but the out-half's problem is not a serious concern.
"Paddy is grand. It was just precautionary. It's quite common now that guys when they are travelling on a flight, can look after any swelling immediately.
"Tommy and Andrew trained well, and it just depends on what way they recover. It was Andrew's first session on the pitch with us this season, so we will see how it goes during the week. Craig is back but Luke won't be at the moment duo to the return-to-play protocols."
Clarke confirmed that the versatility of Ulster's back-line has helped, rather than hindered, their sparkling form.
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"It shows the inter-changeability of our three-quarters at present, particularly from the number 12 position out.
"Our back-line I thought were phenomenal against Glasgow last Friday and you complement that with Darren Cave's experience and winger Louis Ludik being able to adapt to moving to outside centre. He in particular had a huge role to play in setting things off for our last try.
"Some people wondered when we selected Charles Piutau on the wing, but you saw just how damaging he was, and his ability to play in a number of positions across the back-line was outstanding."
Much of this can be attributed to the languid genius of the province's full-back Jared Payne who, like Ulster so far, is just letting it all flow.
"Charles was in the Auckland Academy when I was there," he recalls, "but I never played with him before. I am glad I am not playing against him.
"When he goes into Les' office, he can pretty much ask what he wants so we just let him do what he wants...!"
Notwithstanding the fact that it may have been Joe Schmidt's (justified) omnipotence within Irish rugby that persuaded his erstwhile assistant Kiss to acquiesce to Payne's move, it is the player's omniscience which fully validates it.
It could yet be the key to a Lions tour against the nation of his birth; an ugly prospect for those who decry World Rugby's eligibility laws but cheered by those who want to see the best facing the best.
The player himself, Spartan of speech at the best of times, remains reluctant to crow from the rooftops.
A new arrival in the Payne household - 10-week-old boy Jake - has shifted the priorities of his thinking away from the field.
"I'm just concentrating on being awake on time every morning to get into Ulster," he smiles. But when he arrives, he is fully awake.
Not since 2012 have Ulster started a season so impressively; it remains their stubborn inability to successfully complete at the other end which remains a bugbear to all those who support them.
Hence humility underscores their quietly impressive opening which will be severely tested once more - notwithstanding their bizarre performance in Dublin last Friday - by the Ospreys this weekend.
"We are doing some good things but some poor things too. We are addressing as we go along, we know we are not the finished package," said Payne.
"I don't know if it is the most talented Ulster team I have played with but it is definitely the most honest; they are really good at addressing what has gone wrong regardless of the result. Everyone is keen to get better.
"I have to get my act together or else I'll be on the pines (Kiwi slang for the bench) this season. It doesn't matter if you've played one game or 100. If you're not playing well, you won't get into the team.
"We're confident but we know we can do things even better, it's exciting to believe that there is more to come even though we are winning matches."