Wednesday 17 July 2019

Jared Payne: 'I can't get caught up in what Brian O'Driscoll has done - it's impossible to replicate'

EXCLUSIVE: Jared Payne tells Ruaidhri O'Connor he's adapting to life at No 13

Jared Payne in action during squad training
Jared Payne in action during squad training
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

In other sports in other countries, the jersey would be retired with the man but that's not rugby's way and somebody was always going to have to take on the mantle.

When asked to sum up Brian O'Driscoll before he retired last season, Jamie Heaslip simply answered: "thirteen" and it neatly summarised an era in which one man and one shirt went together hand in hand.

But all good things come to an end and it is almost disconcerting to realise how quickly life goes on. The great centre is now happily ensconced in the land of punditry and a fresh-faced kid is winning hearts and endorsement deals.

He, however, wears the No 12 jersey for the time being; for Joe Schmidt has decided to co-opt the two pretenders to the throne into the same midfield. So, alongside the fresh-faced, broad-shouldered Robbie Henshaw is the rather more grizzled presence of Jared Payne - Ireland's No 13.

Succession planning in professional sport is a tricky business and perhaps nobody could have foreseen that in the last European weeks before Ireland's first Six Nations game of the post-O'Driscoll era, there would be starring performances from Irish-born outside-centres in all four provinces.

And yet, Luke Fitzgerald, Keith Earls, Henshaw and Darren Cave must watch on as a 29-year-old from the town of Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty who plays most of his rugby at full-back beat them to the punch.

And, after two outings in the role, there can be little complaint.

"It's obviously a big thing, it gets talked up in the media a lot. . . there's never going to be another Brian O'Driscoll, is there? In world rugby full stop, he was something special," Payne says.

Brian O'Driscoll
Brian O'Driscoll

"You've got to come in and do what you're fit for. Joe has seen something in me that he likes, so I've just got to go out there and play rugby the way I play it. I can't get caught up too much in what Brian has done over the years or to try replicate that - it would be impossible.

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"A few coaches have told me in my time that the only currency you have got as a player is your last performance.

"It is funny how the game moves on, it's unfortunate and people will never forget but you've got to move on, don't you?"

The process of replacing O'Driscoll began in South Africa hotel when David Humphreys met the then-Auckland Blues back and sold him "the Ulster dream".

Having watched his former New Zealand U-21 team-mates like Kieran Read and Dane Coles go on to represent the All Blacks without ever getting the call himself, he decided that the time was right to see the world.

International rugby was mentioned as part of the package, but three years was a long time to wait. In the end, he decided to throw his lot in with Ulster and see where it took him.

"It was a pretty tough decision. I always wanted to travel and go overseas, most Kiwis go on 'overseas experience' or OE they call it, but I didn't have the chance as I was playing a fair bit of rugby," he recalls.

"David mentioned Ireland on the back-burner, saying if I played well enough the prospect would be there, so once I came over and started playing a bit, there was a pretty awesome buzz about the Irish team since it's been doing so well and that made you want to be part of it."

New Zealand is one of the few countries that has the depth to overlook a player of Payne's talent, and he has adapted to the step up from club rugby with relative ease.

Ireland's Jared Payne in action during the RBS 6 Nations match at the Stadio Olympico, Rome. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday February 7, 2015. See PA story RUGBYU Italy. Photo credit should read: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire.
Ireland's Jared Payne in action during the RBS 6 Nations match at the Stadio Olympico, Rome. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday February 7, 2015. See PA story RUGBYU Italy. Photo credit should read: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire.

It helps that on the laid-back scale he is close on horizontal, a trait that he says originates from his formative days in a town known for its surfing and one that's a major help in settling him into different dressing-rooms.

"I've never not gotten on with anyone I've played with. I'm pretty easy going, I get on with most people," he shrugs. "There's a lot of other people on a rugby team, you're never going to be best of best mates with all of them, but as long as you don't p*ss each other off you're good as gold.

"You've just got to be pretty relaxed, realise everyone's different, everyone's got their own goods and bads and get on with it."

Payne's team-mates describe him as a good talker and defensive organiser, while his attacking nous has been clear to see in Ulster colours.

Since Schmidt sprung the surprise pairing of the Kiwi and Henshaw, the duo have worked hard at establishing cohesion and, although they didn't get much in the way of attacking platform on debut against South Africa, they showed more with ball in hand last Saturday in Rome.

The 29-year-old is building a relationship with the hugely talented Connacht centre while making the adjustment himself.

"Look, I've a few more years under my belt that most debutants so it's probably something I can use to my advantage," he says. "It's going to take a few games, but in terms of settling into the team the boys have made me feel welcome so it's been good as gold.

"Robbie and I have been trying to work towards (the partnership) slowly, it's not going to happen overnight, is it? It takes a good half a dozen games probably to bed something in.

"We're trying to do our best, we definitely are learning something new each week about each other so that's a positive."

Today, Payne (right) and Henshaw will face a different type of test in going up against Mathieu Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana in the midfield, but playing against bigger men is something he is well used to.

He may stand 6ft 2ins and almost 15 stone now, but growing up playing against Polynesians in school meant he learnt how to evade tackles at a young age.

A 400m athlete who was selected for the New Zealand national track team at 17 but opted to play in a Sevens tournament instead, he didn't represent his country at his chosen sport until U-21 level.

"You learn pretty quick to run away from those big boys," he smiles. "I remember being one of the smallest players at schools rugby, so you learn to be fast or else you're going to be beaten up, aren't you?

"When I was very young I tried to play openside flanker, but eventually they realised I was a bit too skinny so they chucked me in at No 13. I was on the 'D' team up until I was about 16 but then I made the first XV and then I've had a few trials for the New Zealand teams, but didn't make it until U-21. It's pretty tough to crack."

During his time at home, he shared a dressing-room with some all-time greats.

"You see them up close, some of them are meticulous in the way they prepare and others a bit more relaxed. It helps you realise that you've got to be good, but everyone's got their own flavour," he explains.

"You learn little tricks of the trade - they're good at sharing experiences, you grow in confidence when you rub shoulders with the likes of McCaw and Carter."

Now, he has taken that experience into the Ireland dressing-room. His presence as a naturalised player won't sit well with those who argue that the rules are being exploited and that the international game is being undermined, but while he's aware of the criticism, it doesn't bother him.

"It's awesome," he says. "It blew me away to tell you the truth, the fans and everything around Rome, the amount of people who travelled, how passionate they are; that first game at the Aviva, the anthems. . . it means a lot. Especially, that the Irish people have accepted me; it's massive.

"It's a huge honour for me to play for Ireland and, when you look around the circle in the team-talk and you've got big Paulie speaking so inspirationally and you just realise you're part of something pretty special."

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