'I consider myself Irish but with Kiwi heritage' - Jared Payne ready to return home with the Lions
Jared Payne, the most left-field of the British & Irish Lions selections, may also be the most laid-back. Last November, the Ireland centre ruptured his kidney after being tackled by Australia’s Reece Hodge, although the damage was only revealed when he suddenly felt the need to go to the toilet at half-time.
“I didn’t really notice it at the time,” Payne said. “It was more like someone had got me in a half-decent tackle. I thought ‘yeah he’s quite tough’. “It was only half-time when I went to the toilet I saw I was peeing blood.
“Faz [Andy Farrell] was next to me laughing saying you ought to get that checked out. I was trying to pass it off as the beetroot juice that you sometimes take before the game but the doc wasn’t having that. It was lucky I didn’t go out there.”
Given that the injury would keep him out for three months, he said with no little understatement: “In hindsight, it was probably for the best I came off.”
For every firebrand like Peter O’Mahony or Alun Wyn Jones, the Lions squad also needs its quota of easy-going, sanguine tourists and Payne is as laissez-faire as a French yoga instructor.
An enthusiastic early adopter of Twitter, Payne’s stream stopped dead on November 15, 2013. Every professional sportsman has felt the sharp end of social media at one time or another and it was easy to imagine trolls targeting Payne having come to Ireland as a “project player” from New Zealand. The truth was more prosaic.
“I got a new phone and I didn’t know what my Twitter password was,” Payne said. “I didn’t know which email I used either so I had no idea how to get it back. If you know how to get a Twitter password back then let me know. I am not the best with technology. My iPad stopped working the other day. Again, no idea how to fix it.”
That Payne is so rarely ruffled or riled is a prized quality in the heat of the Test-match arena, as the 31-year-old demonstrated in Ireland’s final Six Nations match against England. Being thrust straight back into the side after his lay-off, Payne’s first act was to drop a high ball. Thereafter he produced a masterclass of composure and control from full-back as England’s 18-game winning run came to an end in Dublin.
Nevertheless, even the unflappable Payne was shocked his name was read out by John Spencer, the Lions tour manager on April 19. “I was at Ulster and we were having lunch,” Payne said. “For some reason the TV we were watching it on was 30-40 seconds delayed so my partner Chrissy texted me to say ‘oh my God you’ve made it’. I thought she was pulling my leg. Thirty seconds later my name got read out for real.
“I didn’t think I had any sort of chance. I had a pretty disrupted season with injury. It still feels make believe. I think it will be a paper dream until we get out there.”
Inevitably New Zealand-born Payne’s selection drew extra attention. Unlike fellow Kiwi Ben Te’o, Payne, who represented New Zealand Under-21s, has no immediate ancestry from the British Isles. He came to Ulster in 2011 and qualified for Ireland three years later under World Rugby’s three-year residency rule that will extended to five years in 2020.
As such his allegiances have been questioned in both the New Zealand and Irish press, not that it particularly troubles him. “Some people in the media are bringing it up,” Payne said. “It is part of their job to be entertaining. I am not the most serious person so I won’t take any of it to heart. I don’t mind being the lightning rod for all that stuff. It is more about the people I play with and as long as they accept me then that’s the most important thing.”
As much as some people like to think that the concept of nationality is black and white, Payne is proof that there are many shades of grey. Soon after arriving in Northern Ireland, he met his future fiancée and they are currently embarking on a full-scale renovation of a house together just outside Belfast.
“You are always going to be born in a certain country so I guess you could call me a Kiwi but I want to spend the rest of my life here,” Payne said.
“I have got a nine-month old baby and a dog and a house so those are pretty deep roots. It will be pretty tough to leave. I consider myself Irish but with Kiwi heritage. I don’t know how to describe myself but I don’t really get hung up on tags.”
A restless soul, Payne had played for the Chiefs, Crusaders and Blues in New Zealand before deciding to head north. “It has been a bit of a roundabout path,” he said. “I have always moved around. This will be the longest that I have been in one place for my whole life. I had always been keen to do a bit of travel overseas and never got a chance. I thought bugger it. This will be a bit of an adventure and a chance to see the rest of the world and play rugby in a different place. The international aspect always gets brought up but at the time I really didn’t take that into account.
“That [All Blacks] door shut but I have always said that I have never strived for a particular goal. My main concern is enjoying it. I have always said that as soon as I stop enjoying rugby I will stop playing.
“That’s the main driver for me. If you enjoy doing what you are doing that’s more important than who you are playing for.”
Being a New Zealander does have its advantages. Payne says he knows the “lie of the land” in the different towns and cities that the Lions will be playing in and just as importantly has played alongside many of the current All Black side. Having been part of the Irish side that also brought New Zealand’s 18-game winning run to an end in Chicago last year, Payne does not believe in auras, even at the citadel that is Eden Park – venue of the first and third Tests – where the All Blacks have not lost since 1994.
“It is going to be tough for sure,” Payne said. “They are the best in the world. But they are only human and nothing lasts forever. Records are there to be broken.”