Thursday 20 June 2019

Payne knows he's got to be smart in aerial tussles with English

The Kiwi saw red when he crossed paths with Alex Goode last year. He says he will be smarter this time around, writes Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Who better to ask about the pressing issue of high jinks than Jared Payne? The Heineken Cup quarter-final last year between Ulster and Saracens was less than four minutes old when the Kiwi was fashionably late for a rendezvous with Alex Goode - his opposite number that day - or bang on time, depending on how you look at it.

Payne was doing the old fashioned thing of keeping his eye on the ball when he collided with the airborne Goode, causing the Saracen to crash and burn. Long story short: Payne saw red; Ulster lost; and a two-week suspension followed. So, who comes into the England team to replace the injured Mike Brown for today, only the same Mr Goode. And given that Payne is certain to be chasing the odd kick from Johnny Sexton or Conor Murray, it presents a bit of a dilemma: eyes on the ball in the hope of retrieving it, or radar on first for enemy aircraft?

"Yeah, you've got to keep your eye on the other player a bit and judge where they are and what they're doing," he says. "Which makes it a little bit tougher - but that's the way it is now, so you've just gotta move on with the times, don't you?

"You've got to be smart now. It's a pretty hot topic. Even if you jump, maybe if you don't jump quite high enough, you can get yourself in trouble. I think I've learnt from that, personally. If you're not 100 per cent sure that you can really get up - if you're only 60 or 70 per cent, you don't want to take the risk of getting red-carded again, do you? So be smart, take the right decision and if you commit, fully commit."

The last bit suggests Payne hasn't been too scarred by the incident, though he concedes it was "up there" - excuse the pun - with the worst moments in his career.

"Personally, I felt if I got stuck worrying about it for too long, it would have been to the detriment of the team," he says. "It happened, I got banned and then decided to move on. The sooner I got back out and played the best I could, the better for everyone."

By then, he had already been earmarked by Joe Schmidt to slip into the Ireland squad once the farcical three-year residency had been complete - which, in his case, arrived in time for the November series three months ago. When David Humphreys had lured him over from the Auckland Blues, it was with one eye on getting a bit of green on his back, once it was clear to all that he was up to it. And that bit was a formality. No sooner had he announced himself positively on his debut, against South Africa, than he broke his foot, costing himself valuable bedding-in time with Robbie Henshaw, who was a three-cap veteran at that stage.

So this is their fourth Test together. It helps that their opponents today - Luther Burrell and Jonathan Joseph - are hardly long in the tooth either in the international game, with 17 caps between them, and also perhaps that it's the England pair who are in the spotlight. And with good reason. As part of Ireland's preparation, Keith Earls ran as the opposition outside centre, turning his own evasion skills up full.

"We did a bit of work with him (Earls), but look, Jonathan's pretty special right now," Payne says. "He's playing pretty well in his partnership with George Ford and Luther's pretty good right now, so we have to be on our toes. It's awesome to see (Joseph's progress). Everything he's doing right now turns to gold, so hopefully he doesn't get too many one on ones. We're just going to have to work hard as a unit, as a team, and try to shut him down."

Certainly, he won't be shouting him down. His home town, Tauranga, on New Zealand's north island, is surf country and it's easy to imagine Payne with beanie on, ear plugs in and a board over his shoulder. Little gets him over excited and by the same token, not too much drags him down. He's up for today, though.

"Yeah, definitely, You can see the buzz that's been around town. In the papers, everything, the last couple of weeks. It's going to be massive: it means a lot to the Irish and to the English."

The last bit makes him sound like an inbetweener, which of course he is. That's not to say that he isn't on board with what Joe Schmidt wants, or has any doubts about delivering it. And he has the standard 'anyone but England' line common to nations a fraction the size of Ireland's opponents today.

"Personally it's huge," Payne says of this afternoon's Test. "I can see what it means to the public, too, to me personally. I was never a big fan of the English myself."

If you read that line coming from an English player, there would be a diplomatic incident. And social media would go into meltdown. Coming from Payne, however, who earlier in the piece is talking about his opponents glowingly and on first-name terms, it falls out of his mouth like standard sports-speak. Unlike his mistiming of last year's meeting with Alex Goode, it won't earn him a red card. If he's not on the winning team today, though, it's likely to earn him an earful.

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