'If you pay me enough, I'll tell you'- Jared Payne coy on his starting position for Italian job
The ever-genial manner would probably never relay as much, but Jared Payne has surely had enough of fielding questions as to what his preferred position is.
Since making his international debut at second centre in the 2014 Autumn Internationals, speculation as to where the Kiwi would best serve Ireland has rarely relented.
Initially, it was his perceived lack of attacking imagination that had a considerable cabal clamouring for even fresher blood to occupy the lauded number 13 jersey.
During his absence in the World Cup, it became all too apparent that his defensive nous and bravery were pivotal to Ireland’s success and, for a brief period, Payne’s partnership with Robbie Henshaw was thought sacrosanct.
However, when he returned from the ankle injury that curtailed his World Cup, the 30-year-old gave a pair of stunning performances in the Champions Cup for Ulster that amply demonstrated what a potent attacking threat he is from deeper territory.
Coupled with the dwindling form of incumbent Rob Kearney, there has been a groundswell of pleading to see him moved to full back, with club colleague Stuart McCloskey forming a new midfield duo with Henshaw.
Indeed, that scenario was partially played out at Twickenham, where Ireland were comprehensively beaten by 21-10 by a ferocious England side.
Having sustained a hamstring and quad tear against France, Payne was omitted from the side as the latter issue had not subsided, so McCloskey and Henshaw comprised an all new midfield.
Now back in fine fettle, Payne is raring to go for Saturday’s dead-rubber with Italy but, for his brief time as a spectator, he was suitably impressed by what he saw from the callow Irish centres in such an exacting crucible.
“It’s always frustrating getting injured but I got looked after well by the physios,” Payne said at Carton Hose on Tuesday.
“Everything is good now, I trained fully today and hopefully I can kick on for the rest of the week.
“I thought they were pretty good for a first time out. They handled most of what England threw at them and they were both very physical and big carriers. I thought for the environment they got put into for the first time, it was pretty impressive.”
With pleasantries out of the way, those familiar questions materialised again, though perhaps phrased in a trickier manner.
Did he think Joe Schmidt would be tempted to give the Henshaw and McCloskey another go at the Avvia Stadium?
And, are the Azzuri the type of side an attacking full back could have a real cut off? The latter has an extra poignancy in light of Rob Kearney’s latest hamstring issue.
To his credit, Payne played ball while remaining just the right amount of coy.
“I’d imagine (playing Henshaw and McCloskey again), Joe would be silly not to. I think the guys were pretty impressive, so I’m sure there will be another chance to see them at some stage.
“They’ve (Italy) got some very good outside backs, from 13 out, they’re all pretty dangerous. So if it’s at full back, 13 or out on the wings, you’ll have to be on top of your game.
“I don’t about shining at 15; you’ll have to be pretty tight on your field positioning, defensive work to keep them quiet.”
On a serious note, Italy’s midfield of Gonzalo Garcia and Michele Campagnaro are an impressive unit and Ireland, still winless this season, are in no position to be cavalier.
Campagnaro, in particular, is a dynamic and evasive operator, and Ireland could be best served with their most reliable defender keeping tabs on him.
Payne’s happy to do it but, in the spirit of messing with a captive press corps, wearing the number 15 jersey might be more fun.
“Joe will have his own ways of doing everything but marshalling Campagnaro is tough. He’s probably been the form 13 in the Six Nations; he’s quick and surprisingly strong and been on form so whoever has got the job dealing with him is going to have a tough day.
“It would be nice to do it (mark Campagnaro) but, at the same time, it would be nice to be at the back running around. But tearing it up for Ulster at Oyonnax is a bit different to tearing it up in a test match. It’s a massive jump in levels.”
The anticipation gets too much and, finally, he’s asked directly: ‘Jared, what position are you playing on Saturday?’
“If you pay me enough, I’ll tell you.”