Kiwi-born and raised, he served his three-year stint under the game’s current regulations, having arrived in Ulster in 2011 and proceeded to play a crucial role in Ireland’s retention of the Six Nations title.
With Leinster’s Richardt Strauss having followed a similar path and the likes of Munster’s South-African-born back row CJ Stander keen to do likewise, the residency rule is beginning to make waves in Ireland.
The influx from the southern hemisphere of ever younger players into Europe, and France in particular, is sounding alarms. World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper stated that the residency issue may have to be looked at to protect the integrity of Test rugby.
“It would be an interesting decision if they decide to change it,” said Payne, who was born in Tauranga and played for three Super Rugby sides and the New Zealand U21s before leaving for Belfast aged 26.
“Three years is a long time in professional sport. If you extend it to five, some people’s careers don’t last five. I don’t think it needs to be changed. Three years is a pretty long time to commit to a different country.
“I don’t see a problem with it. But I’m probably a bit biased.”
Payne claims he would still have made the move had the rule been for five years at the time he left New Zealand. His commitment has been total since former Ulster Director of Rugby David Humphreys signed him.
The only down side was an Achilles tendon injury that wrecked his first season. Stationed at full-back for most of his stint here, he has migrated to centre with province and country and excelled in that role in a new-look Irish midfield alongside Robbie Henshaw since qualifying for national duties.
It’s been a lot to take in.
“After the Six Nations, when we’d got a week off, you sit back and look at it all and you get a massive high. You do realise there have been massive lows as well. I sent a text to ‘Humphs’ to thank him for everything.
“I wouldn’t change a thing. It has been a roller-coaster. But, I’ve loved every minute of it. It is pretty hard to put into the words the feeling you have after the Six Nations.”
The season could get better yet. Munster pitch up at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday for a Guinness Pro12 encounter that will go a long way to deciding which of the two provinces enjoy home advantage for the semi-final, with the decider already pencilled in for Belfast. Looking on will be Joe Schmidt, a fellow Kiwi who has made an even bigger splash here and one whose record of success with Leinster and Ireland has not gone unnoticed back home.
“Hopefully they’re not too interested,” said Payne. “You’d prefer to keep him up here wouldn’t you? He’s definitely been noticed back home. You see articles and what not.
“The All Blacks and the New Zealand rugby public in general have seen what Ireland have done under Joe. He’s held in high regard, he’s definitely made an imprint on the public back home.”