Boks of tricks

Munster's South African centre and full back want to create their own piece of Thomond Park magic today. Edward Newman and Charlie Mulqueen spoke to Springboks, Trevor Halstead and Shaun Payne.

WHEN Alan Gaffney revealed in the summer of 2002 that South African Shaun Payne was one of his new signings, it could hardly be said that there was rejoicing among Munster fans. Already into his 30s, he was part of a struggling Swansea team and the big days with Natal Sharks were long past.

Furthermore, Christian Cullen was going in the same direction. That ruled out filling the full-back jersey he had adorned in his younger days and as Payne commented at the time: "Cully is Cully, I was in awe of him and the prospect of being on the same team was fantastic. And he wasn't the only one I had to beat for a place because Munster had a shedload of backs."

However, fate was about to play its hand. Cullen and injury went hand in hand, previous incumbents Dominic Crotty and Jeremy Staunton departed the scene and suddenly Munster needed a full-back. Payne put up his hand; Gaffney placed his trust in him.

He has become a crucial member of the side, performing in defence and attack to the manor born, and so a vital cog in the Munster wheel against Sale Sharks at Thomond Park today.

"This game, for me, is the whole season," he declares. "There is no way I will even contemplate losing this game; I won't allow that thought to cross my mind. You can't allow yourself to do things like that. You've got to focus on your own job and do everything you can to ensure your preparation is right. If we get through, obviously there will be big games to come but right now this is by far the biggest of the season.

"Will I be nervous? Yes, personally I do get quite nervous. I try to force myself not to think about it too much and if I do, I make sure to think positively about it. You do enjoy it once you're involved and you're playing in it, but from the Thursday onwards, time drags and kick-off doesn't seem to come any closer. I can't say I enjoy the two or three days before a game. Everyone is different when it comes to the mental preparation but, personally, I try not to think about it too much."

He smiles at the suggestion he has been the saviour of the current Munster cause, given the absence of an obvious contender for the number 15 jersey. Indeed, there isn't a full-back listed in the player profiles in the Heineken media guide with Payne himself described as a centre or wing. "Cully is obviously a great loss to Munster because I've never seen a player like him," he says.

"Once he was gone, there might have been somebody else to do the job but I'm just happy I was able to take over without letting anybody down. I didn't come here as a full-back but I would have played most of my underage rugby in South Africa as a 15 and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is quite a demanding position compared to wing where you can relax a bit whereas at full-back you've got to be on the alert all the time."

Payne was a member of the Munster team in the so-called "miracle match" against Gloucester in his first season and while he is very proud of that day, he reels off several other occasions which will live with him for a long time. Ironically, the first he listed was the semi-final in 2004 when they lost 32-27 to London Wasps at Lansdowne Road.

"That was a special day apart from the last eight minutes and the result," he says. "Just driving to the ground, I've never seen so many people out on the street. Another great occasion was against Stade Francais at Thomond Park when I scored a try one or two minutes into the game."

You try and try again to draw parallels with the Gloucester game and while he smiles at the memory, he plays it down as much as possible.

Like it or not, though, that amazing result is a massive part of Munster and Thomond Park folklore. Sale will be well aware of it and all the other great European days so you have to wonder if today's visitors will feel just a tiny intimidated at what lies in wait.

"Putting myself in their shoes, I would see it as a massive challenge," says Payne. "There's a golden pot at the end of the rainbow for them. It could be a huge motivating factor to come here and be the first team to win at Thomond Park."

Payne will be 34 next month and hopes to continue with Munster for another season. Having originally lived in Douglas, Cork, he has since moved with his wife Michelle and children Dylan, four, and Amy, two, to Ballina just across the Shannon from Killaloe "because I'm not much of a city person."

He's a Tipp man now although by the sounds of it, he will never lose that South African lilt.

Rejuvenated Halstead ready to make his mark

SOMETIMES the planets in the rugby universe are unaligned.

When Stuart Barnes and Dewi Morris began their preview of the Munster-Sale game this week, they even took themselves by surprise by focusing on Munster backs and Sale forwards.

This was new territory for their analysis. When last was a Munster back-line perceived as key to winning a Heineken Cup game? But the assessment that Munster are one-dimensional and bereft of three-quarter imagination was disproved by the two former England internationals. In their eyes, the Munster mirror now has two faces.

And their darling of the week was Munster centre Trevor Halstead, the pair concluding that the former Natal Sharks player and his partner, Barry Murphy, could be pivotal to a Munster win. They balanced their analysis by admitting that Sale's imperious second row of Dean Schofield and Chris Jones would trouble Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan, but they were going head-over-heels on Munster's new midfield.

Halstead's power is offset by Murphy's sinuous running and a second viewing of the Castres game only emphasises how many Munster moves started with this duo, but the mover and shaker on a cold night in Castres was Halstead. He broke half-tackles, he fought to stay on his feet and, when wrapped up by two tacklers, still managed to offload.

"I pretty much just want to make my mark here in Munster," says Halstead. "It would be an awful thing to come here and do my time and never be remembered. I hope I will be remembered at least for a while."

For six months, Halstead left the Munster public decidedly underwhelmed. He admits he "was getting a bit despondent" and detected the ripple of dissatisfaction.

"I wouldn't say I was making the gains that I hoped I would. Now guys are running their lines well and it is making life easier for me on the crash phase. But there was criticism of all the backs too.

"We were aware of the criticism but it didn't cause any trouble or present any problems at training. Obviously if the forwards are dominating in a game, why change it - we should play with that too. They are a great pack. If they can get the momentum and keep driving forward, there is very little work then for the backs.

"As a back-line we knew too that we weren't playing up to potential. There are some great players now stepping up to the mark. There are new guys in the team, I can see the talent and can see it coming through. An increase of confidence comes with good performances."

Halstead doesn't want to be seen as just a "basher", and he's certainly a creative force, central to Munster's 15-man game. That strategy got a full 80-minute outing against Castres.

"I was very happy with the way the game went and, obviously for myself, it was a memorable night. It all comes from the backs coming together over the last two weeks or so. We actually looked at ourselves and said we had to run all options. I think that's what happened.

"Gaps opened up for the ball carrier and it made their defence think and take a double look at what was happening. It worked out well."

He likes the Kidney way of conducting backs training - sessions are structured democratically, with players' input regarded just as valid as Kidney's enlightened thinking.

"He is quite open because he lets the players have their say, especially with senior players like Ronan (O'Gara). He has been around a while and knows what is going on. It's a nice change from some coaches who like to stamp their complete authority on a back-line."

And Halstead is enjoying the partnership with Murphy, a player he says has the ability to reach the top.

"He's elusive, he keeps the ball alive and looks for the players around him. He is not a selfish player, which is good for a youngster coming through."

His own days in an international shirt are, he concedes, at an end and he is unlikely to add to the six caps he earned between 2001 and 2003. Munster is his only focus and Sale are in his sights.

"We have studied every one of them. I wish I could say how it is going to go. I'm hoping we get good go-forward ball. It doesn't matter who you're playing. I think it will go well for us especially with our confidence levels up. We have confidence in ourselves and are looking forward to the game in that sense. I hope we get to see some of the ball."

And if he does see enough ball, expect Thomond to at last applaud their adopted Springbok son.

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