Ulster duo Best and Payne in Ireland fitness race
The chances of Rory Best and Jared Payne getting any meaningful game-time before the November internationals are receding as it appears neither will be involved for Ulster against La Rochelle on Sunday.
Neither player has featured for their province since playing for the Lions at the end of last season.
Ireland captain Best is making progress on his hamstring injury and will travel with the team to France and had been targeting a return this week, but the game is likely to be too soon for him. Ulster continue to monitor Payne on a week-to-week basis. He was ruled out of the last weeks of the Lions tour after suffering from headaches.
Joe Schmidt is set to name his squad for the Tests against South Africa, Fiji and Argentina next week and there are two Guinness PRO14 games between now and the Springbok clash on November 11 for players to prove their fitness.
Ulster take on Leinster on Saturday week, before travelling to South Africa to take on the Southern Kings seven days before the first Test.
"Rory is still week to week," Ulster coach Jono Gibbes said of his captain.
"He's had some involvement in our sessions this week. He's moved to the next stage for sure and he's had a bit of involvement in the session I've just come from. It's a players' day off tomorrow so we'll see how he goes. JP (Payne) is still ongoing."
Meanwhile, Ireland's summer tour schedule has been confirmed.
Schmidt's side face a first three-Test series against Australia in June with the matches scheduled for Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney.
Ireland will conclude their season Down Under in the last summer tour before the 2019 Rugby World Cup and will face off against Michael Cheika's men over three successive weeks.
Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium will host the first clash on June 9, before the teams meet at Melbourne's AAMI Park a week later.
The potential series decider will take place in Sydney's Allianz Stadium on June 23.
Ireland played a three-Test series against New Zealand in 2012 and South Africa in 2016, losing the first 3-0 and the second 2-1. They last played in Australia in 2010.
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