For quietly going through a series of intense exercises, his eyes betraying a familiar focus, was Ireland and British and Irish Lions centre Jared Payne.
Payne has yet to make an appearance in the white jersey this season, and he certainly won’t feature in the inter-provincial series which starts for Ulster in Connacht tomorrow evening.
His summer tour with the Lions in the land of his birth, New Zealand, was prematurely cut short when he was struck with a headache-related problem about which few details have been released, but which has been intensively treated and monitored.
Skills coach Niall Malone, earlier this week, admitted that his absence had left “a bit of a vacuum” given the organisational skills he brings to both Ulster’s and Ireland’s backline. Payne is one of the longer-term casualties, along with back-rower Marcel Coetzee, but there are reasons to believe he’ll appear relatively soon for his club, news which will be welcomed by Irish coach Joe Schmidt.
And as he was sidelined for a greater part of last year with a serious kidney ailment that Payne was given ‘the nod’ by Warren Gatland for the Lions tour says much about the Kiwi’s regard for his ability to communicate to others around him, while still bringing his own great rugby skillset into play.
Director of rugby Les Kiss says the player is optimistic that he’ll be available to play sometime in the new year, but his welfare is the overriding issue and he will not be rushed despite Ulster’s imminent heavy workload in the Guinness Pro 14 and Champions Cup.
“He’s getting the right care and he’s seeing the right people, and I think we’re very close now to resolving Jared’s recent issues,” said Kiss, who revealed that Payne was an integral part of the management’s preparation for games.
“He’s in our core group, our defensive leadership group, he’s engaged on a daily basis, and the only thing he’s not doing is actually playing.
“We have to go through the right processes, and we’re doing just that, because Jared is important to us at Ulster and to Irish rugby.”
Kiss insisted Payne’s best interests, and those of his family, take priority. “Jared wants to get that jersey on, but we have to be sure the timing is right, and I know he’ll bring so much to the squad when he’s given the all-clear.”
Kiss said Payne doesn’t need to worry that his contract runs out this summer. “Once he gets back and brings all that rugby intelligence with him, his deal with Ulster will be something which looks after itself.”