Kiwi Payne could be Ireland's gain
DECLAN KIDNEY'S focus will be on today's events in Limerick, but over in the Italian city of Parma, the future may well be playing itself out tomorrow.
The Ireland coach is on a mission to replenish his playing stock right now and replacing Brian O'Driscoll is high on his agenda and the man who wears the Ulster No 13 jersey against Zebre could be the answer to his prayers.
After Richardt Strauss' debut against South Africa, Ireland entered a new era of their 'special project' players wearing green and New Zealander Jared Payne could be the next one on the list.
The Ulster back qualifies for Ireland in September 2014, nicely in time for the World Cup which takes place a year later. He is open to the idea of playing international rugby here, but there is still the possibility that he could play for the All Blacks if he went home.
There is little doubt that his addition would bolster the Irish options. Payne, who has mostly played at full-back this season, is a class act who could have made a huge difference to the province's cause against Leinster in last year's Heineken Cup final if he was available. Unfortunately, he missed much of last season after rupturing his ankle ligaments.
"I haven't got any long-term goals. I just set small goals and work week to week," Payne says.
"It would be nice if Ireland thought that I was good enough and they wanted me. But I will make that decision then. In the meantime, I just want to help Ulster keep their unbeaten record."
That 100pc start to the season is under threat tomorrow as the Pro12 leaders seek to cope without the majority of their squad.
Mark Anscombe has taken everything else in his stride since arriving in Belfast, but the knock-on effect of his side's success is that there are more Ulster players involved in the national side than there has been for years.
"It's definitely going to be a huge game for the side with so many of the big names away," said Payne, who will have Niall O'Connor returning alongside Michael Heaney beside him at half-back.
"But we are well prepared and we are definitely not thinking we are better than Zebre. We just want to worry about what we are going to do and negate them and, hopefully, the lads will come up with another win.
"Being unbeaten is a nice thing to carry around. But, honestly, you don't think too much about it. I suppose it gives you a bit of motivation in that you don't want to be in the team that loses that record."
Roger Wilson returns to the Ulster No 8 jersey in a formidable back-row with Nick Williams and Mike McComish, while Payne partners Paddy Wallace in midfield.
Verdict: Away win
ULSTER – R Andrew; M Allen, J Payne, P Wallace, C Cochrane; N O'Connor, M Heaney; C Black, N Brady (capt), J Afoa, R Diack, N McComb, N Williams, M McComish, R Wilson. Reps: R Herring, T Court, D Fitzpatrick, J Simpson, A Birch, B McIlroy, S Olding, P Nelson.
Ref – N Paterson (SRU)