Shaun Payne may be looking forward to the Lions playing the Springboks in his home town over the next three Saturdays but he cannot wait for the start of the new season and an uptick in Munster’s visits to South Africa.
Thecaught up with Payne in Cape Town this week, as the 49-year-old bustled between site meetings on behalf of his construction company and if it was not for the pressures of his business, he may have talked a lot longer than the 30 minutes he managed. For the club he played 106 games for, including the 2006 Heineken Cup final victory over Biarritz, and then served as team manager from retirement two years later to 2012 still courses through the Payne veins.
He has been home in Cape Town for nine years now and there have been several ups and downs back in his homeland, not least a well-documented and harrowing home invasion attack in 2015 and a run-in with Covid-19 late last year that took some time to get over.
Yet Payne is resilient and is now fully back cycling every morning, whether up a mountain, along a road, or on the ‘gravel grinder’ bike he loves to cyclocross with. He insists he has time only to be grateful for what he has got, Munster included.
“Let’s be honest, Munster was my rugby home. I know I played 90 games or whatever it was for the Sharks, but Munster essentially is where the heart resides when it comes to rugby.
“I catch all the Munster games on the television and I, with great pride, will tell anyone who asks about Munster what it means to play for Munster, how it interacts with the crowds, how well Munster has done, the development of Thomond Park that happened while I was there with the management and the High-Performance Centre… sometimes I think people get bored of it but I can’t help it. I’m proud of what happened at Munster during my playing time and the things we developed during my management.”
Next season’s URC, with the Bulls, Lions, Stormers, and Sharks joining the old PRO14 teams will be a great opportunity for Payne to renew long-standing friendships.
“With the big South African franchises joining the URC we should be seeing a bit more of the Munster guys and I’ve made a point of catching up, like the last time we went to George (to play the Southern Kings in 2018) and met up with all the guys at the hotel, then watched the game, we had great craic and it was good to catch up with the supporters.
“Most of the South African guys who have played for Munster can’t wait to tell other South Africans how good it was there.”
The now-retired CJ Stander is now one of that number since returning home to the family farm in George, some 430km along the coast from Cape Town.
“I was surprised he retired,” Payne said. “I was originally involved in bringing CJ over to Munster, flew out to South Africa to meet him here many years ago, before he came over.
“I’m really happy for him. I think it worked out really well and he’s had some great times in Ireland and in the Irish set-up. For me that was a real success story for Munster, for Ireland, and great for CJ and his family as well.”
Another player Payne saw develop at Munster was Conor Murray, whose omission from the Test team and place on the bench for today’s first Test raised some eyebrows.
“There were marginal calls right the way across the Lions selection. I can’t recall any other Lions tours where you really didn’t know what the Lions Test team was going to be. I think Warren’s had a particularly hard job choosing it as there have been very few shoo-ins.
“But leaving Conor on the bench says to me how strong the actual team is, that they’ve got so much depth to choose from.”
Payne is happy he does not have those decisions to make. He has had enough of his own to deal with in his nine years since leaving Limerick to return to Cape Town.
“It’s been extremely challenging. We’ve had a few setbacks along the way and the complication was 2015 when we had the whole home invasion attack on Michelle and myself. We were lucky the kids weren’t involved but that was a little bit of a setback, and then trying to start and run the business and build it up and then Covid hit extremely hard.
“But we’re very blessed. We’ve managed to carry on and see our way through and there are lots of guys in our industry that didn’t, so I’ve got nothing to complain about — only things to be thankful about.”