'I can't expect to be anywhere near Six Nations starting spot' - Payne
IRELAND'S newest naturalised Ireland international Jared Payne has distanced himself from an immediate return to Joe Schmidt's side ahead of the opening leg of the Six Nations title defence against Italy next month.
The Kiwi-born utility back featured in the opening November series win against South Africa but was forced off with a seemingly innocuous foot sprain that ultimately forced him out of the game for two months.
Payne debuted at outside-centre in that game against South Africa alongside Robbie Henshaw but the Connacht star has subsequently declared that he wants to fill the 13 jersey in the forthcoming Six Nations.
Payne would seem to agree, as he has declared that he is nowhere near an international call-up, despite returning to the Ulster side that narrowly defeated Treviso last weekend.
"That's a long way away," said Payne as his Ulster side, already a beaten docket in Europe, prepare for this week's formidable trip to back-to-back European champions Toulon.
"I've played next to no rugby and I can't expect to be anywhere near that team. I've just got to try and get my foot right and get a few more minutes on the field."
Payne was clearly annoyed by the extent of the injury, particularly as it seemed to be a mere sprain that Ireland hoped would clear sufficiently enough for him to finish the November series against Australia, instead of - painfully - kicking his heels for well over a month.
"I'm still trying to figure it out," he admits. "I just pushed off it a bit funny and I think I sprained something and it seems to have taken forever.
"It's a bit disappointing to not be on the field as the final whistle blew against South Africa but it was still a great day and I couldn't have asked for any more.
"There have been a few Ireland camps since then and I've just hung around and watched them. I haven't been able to take part so I want to try and put a few minutes on the park for Ulster and see what happens."
There is little enthusiasm among Ulster supporters for prolonging their European misery after three defeats in their opening four pool matches, particularly as is there is no longer an escape hatch into the second tier.
After a costly interprovincial programme over the festive period, most want to concentrate on ensuring a play-off berth in the Pro12 but Payne is looking no further than this week's forbidding trip to the Stade Mayol.
"There were a few frustrating days or weeks but that's all part of rugby," he said. "You take the good with the bad and you've just got to ride it out haven't you?
"It's a pretty awesome occasion going down there and it's about backing yourself to give yourself confidence. It's about playing against players you've looked up to when you were younger.
"Even myself, I look up to a lot of these guys. It's good to get out there and have a crack at them.
"I used to look up to Ali Williams and I played with him at the Blues. Rudi Wulf I played with him at age group, I don't know him really well but pretty well.
"You've got to play rugby for the enjoyment so it's nice to relax and just go and play purely for the enjoyment factor."