For some, the sight of Jared Payne, Richardt Strauss and Rodney Ah You in an Irish shirt will never sit right, but all three will stand for the anthems tomorrow before Joe Schmidt’s side gets to grips with South Africa at Lansdowne Road.
In truth, Ireland are late enough to that particular party. Rugby’s residency rules have been widely used to varying degrees by most of the top nations and rarely more so than in 2011 when then England coach Martin Johnson named 13 ‘foreigners’ in his preliminary 45-man World Cup squad. Leading the line of the disgruntled at the time was Worcester-born back row Luke Narraway who lost out to Thomas Waldrom, the Kiwi who only discovered he had an English granny midway through the season with Leicester Tigers. “As for myself, still dreaming of a holiday,” Narraway tweeted. “Good luck to Thomas the tank and his English nan #notbittermuch.”
Payne knows his promotion will feed some critics, but he isn’t about to let it get to him.
“People are entitled to their opinion,” said Ulster’s Kiwi. “They can say what they want. I’ve been over here for three years now. I’m pretty passionate about it, seeing the environment Ireland have created over the last three years.
“It is something I want to be a part of. I was down at all the games last year to help with the radio commentary on BBC or with my girlfriend. To see the atmosphere was awesome. I can’t wait to get out there, to tell you the truth.”
He has rarely been one to talk animatedly and that didn’t change yesterday. He did, however, say all the right things, like when he spoke about how he was rooting for Ireland when they faced his native New Zealand 12 months ago.
That would be a New Zealand team that contained some close friends from his days playing with the Blues and Crusaders in Super Rugby. Guys like Kieran Read, Ryan Crotty, Charlie Faumaoiena and Keven Mealamu.
He doesn’t say it, and nor is he asked, but he would be wearing the same black jersey had his life followed a more linear path. He was, after all, born in Tauranga Papamoa in the Bay of Plenty region and he played for his country at the now disbanded U21 level.
Payne came to his crossroads in 2011 thanks to a phone call from Ulster’s Director of Rugby David Humphreys. Travel had always appealed and, though he plays down the role a potential Ireland berth played in his decision, it must have helped swing the vote.
He expects the nerves to start jingling some time tomorrow, but he’s happy enough to take his post in the midfield. He played most of his rugby at 13 for a season with Northland and the Blues and has frequented those premises more and more with Ulster.
At 29, he is no deer in headlights and he has a couple of Super Rugby semi-finals and big Heineken Cup experience to draw on as he partners the younger Robbie Henshaw who has been accommodated at inside centre.
“He is a very good ball carrier, a very good passer too,” said Payne of the Connacht man. “On defence, he talks a lot too. And he’s a big boy. We’ve gone okay so far, so we’re pretty confident heading into this week.”
It will make for an incongruous sight: An Irish midfield devoid of both Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy.
The numbers on their respective backs have generated most of the debate. Payne plays it down by pointing out the similarities rather than the differences in the roles while, at the same time, admitting his experience at 12 amounts to mere minutes.
Henshaw’s own time there is just as limited and, while Schmidt talked up the Test experience on either side of them, Payne made one observation that highlighted the callow nature of an Irish midfield that was for so long a bastion of experience.
“I think the player I’ve only really played with is Tommy (Bowe), so it’s going to be all a new experience. But I can’t wait. Johnny (Sexton) is one of the best fly-halves around. He gives you time on the ball.
“With Robbie at 12, hopefully we can carry the ball and get over the gain line. Then you’ve got someone pretty exciting like (Simon) Zebo and Rob (Kearney) at the back, so it’s going to be good.”
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