ULSTER'S Jared Payne will target Rob Kearney's full-back role for the next World Cup after committing himself to the Irish cause by penning a new three-year deal yesterday.
The stylish erstwhile Auckland Blues player has confirmed that representing Ireland is firmly on his radar and, with just over 15 months remaining for him to complete his residential status, Payne could be in line to play in the 2014 autumn series.
That would leave him with a decent run of games to tackle Kearney's primacy in the full-back role. "I haven't got any long-term goals – I just set small goals and work week to week," said the Tauranga-born 27-year-old (pictured right), whose deft hands and silky running skills could also present him as a possible successor to Brian O'Driscoll in the Irish midfield.
"But it would be nice if the opportunity came about to play for Ireland. In the meantime, it has been a successful season so far and hopefully we can finish the campaign off with some silverware."
Payne, whose first season was curtailed by a snapped Achilles tendon, has lit the fuse for much of the province's fine attacking displays this term and he will be hoping to produce another good display in Friday's Pro12 semi-final clash against Llanelli Scarlets.
"Jared is an exceptional player who is as dynamic with ball-in-hand as he is rock-solid in defence," said Ulster director of rugby David Humphreys. "He is a hugely important member of our squad and I am delighted that he has committed to for a further three years."
Payne will celebrate his new three-year contract by lining out for the Barbarians in their two-match series this summer. The Barbarians play England at Twickenham on May 26, then head to Hong Kong for an appointment with Warren Gatland's Lions six days later. Payne is one of just two Irish-based players included along with Munster's South African prop BJ Botha.
Meanwhile, Ulster's John Afoa remains a concern for Friday's match and, after Scarlets coach Simon Easterby was forced to issue a public apology to supporters after their humiliating home defeat by Treviso, Ulster boss Mark Anscombe has warned his players not to be complacent about the job in hand.
"They have worked hard all year and they've earned the right to be in the semi-final," Anscombe said. "Past performances and games against them (Scarlets) count for nothing. It will be down to whichever team takes their chances and goes about their work in the right way.
"Certainly there has been a good attitude in training this week. You can feel the buzz and the positive attitude. The players are excited and that's what you want.
"It's not about changing anything; it's about keeping our focus and emptying the tank. If we do that, we have a good chance of making the final."