Jared Payne is back in the Irish Rugby squad for the last two games of the 2017 Six Nations Championship. The 31 year old’s return could mean Joe Schmidt will break up the Robbie Henshaw – Garry Ringrose centre partnership.
Payne suffered a painful kidney injury in the opening half of the November victory over Australia at the Aviva Stadium and it was feared he would miss all of this year's Six Nations. With the New Zealand native side-lined, the Leinster duo started together for the first time at Test level in February’s defeat to Scotland at Murrayfield.
Payne is considered a vital cog in the Irish defensive system and his absence has been used by many to explain how the Scots were able to score three early tries. The Henshaw - Ringrose centre partnership was retained for the wins over Italy and France and they could remain at 12 and 13 with Payne in the team for the game against Wales in Cardiff, if the Ulsterman was handed the number 15 shirt.
Full back has long been considered the Payne’s best position. Schmidt spent most of last year’s Six Nations resisting calls to play him there and it would be seamless transition if Rob Kearney was unable to overcome his current groin problem. Kearney required a scan last week, but he appears to be on the mend, as he has retained his place in the Irish squad.
Payne will make his return to the Ulster starting team in the Pro 12 match against Benetton Treviso in Belfast, having been selected to play at outside centre.
He could have been named at full back, but Ulster coach Les Kiss has opted to replace Jacob Stockdale with winger Craig Gilroy.
At Carton House last week Schmidt reiterated that he has little say in how the Provinces select their teams, but it is hard to see how Kiss would have gone against the wishes of his old boss considering the IRFU’s long standing policy that the National team takes priority.
Payne has made 20 appearances for Ireland since making his debut in 2014, with just 2 of those at full back. He has played 18 Tests at outside centre, partnering Robbie Henshaw on 14 occasions and Garry Ringrose just once.
Schmidt may be thinking of placing the Henshaw – Ringrose partnership on hold for the upcoming Six Nations games against Wales and England, but the split will only be temporary.
With Payne nearly a decade older than both, Henshaw and Ringrose are set to be the feature of the Leinster and Ireland back line for years to come.