The clock is ticking on outside centre Jared Payne even making the bench for Ireland’s Friday night date with Wales in Cardiff, but there is no panic in the Irish management.
Whether it is the incumbent midfield partnership of Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose or the ability to provide suitable cover for the outside backs from the replacements, assistant coach Simon Easterby believes Ireland have the strength in depth to carry on surviving without Payne for the time being.
It was not too long ago the absence of Payne, seen by head coach Joe Schmidt as his defensive captain, might have raised the alarm about Ireland’s capacity to cope.
Yet three games into this RBS 6 Nations campaign and the all-Leinster Henshaw-Ringrose axis is going from strength to strength.
So when Easterby delivered the Irish fitness update after training at Carton House yesterday and reported Payne had been one of four players to sit out the morning’s full- contact session due to bumps and bruises from his first start at the weekend for Ulster after a three-month absence due to a serious kidney injury, there came an endorsement of the players who helped deliver the wins over Italy and France rather than wailing and the gnashing of teeth.
Payne’s absence from one of the main training sessions of the week means he is unlikely to figure in Schmidt’s plans for the starting XV at the Principality Stadium in four days, which will likely leave Ringrose at outside centre.
Easterby described Ringrose, 22, as “extremely” calm and composed, which he will need to be under the lights in a white-hot atmosphere in Cardiff on Friday night with Wales expected to come out fighting following a first loss to Scotland in a decade in round three.
“He’s very diligent. He gets on with his job, he works incredibly hard at all aspects of his game,” Easterby continued of Ireland’s youngest player in camp.
“He sees things early. It’s nice to watch him play because there’s not too many of those players around with the ability to see things almost before they happen.
“He’s still learning, there are a lot of things he’ll want to improve on. All areas of his game will be fine-tuned over the next few years.
“Let’s not put too much pressure on him. He’s a quality individual who hasn’t just come on the scene, we’ve known about his quality for a long time. In his first season of international rugby, he’s been accelerated into that position. but he’s dealt with everything that’s been thrown at him so far.
“He’ll be on a massive learning curve as well. That’s not to say he won’t make mistakes, but he’s probably one of those players who will only have to learn once from a mistake and then move on to something else. He has that ability to keep moving forward.”
As for Payne, who stepped out of training yesterday alongside his bumped and bruised squad-mates Tiernan O’Halloran, Dan Leavy and Joey Carbery, there is still the chance he could feature on the bench this Friday given his ability to cover both centre and full-back, although Easterby acknowledged getting up to speed in the penultimate round of the Six Nations after an 80-minute run against Zebre in the PRO12 would represent a big step up in terms of intensity.
“He obviously ticks a few boxes in that he can cover centre and full-back,” the Ireland assistant said of Payne.
“We have other players as well with that ability. We’ve just got to be happy that Jared has spent enough time with us. He’s been a long time out of this group. To have him back in is great, but it’s important that we feel comfortable that he’s had enough time with us - not just in the environment, but on the pitch.
“If you’ve been out a long time then the intensity from PRO12 to European rugby, there’s another step up.
"You’ve seen for years how different a Six Nations game is, even compared to some autumn internationals they are incredibly fierce and a lot of ball in play time. It is a big change, a big step up from PRO12 rugby.
“It’s a bit difficult for players who have been out for a long period to try and get up to that level really quickly.”
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