Jared Payne returns to fitness, finally giving Ireland coach Joe Schmidt some options.
Payne has been announced fully fit and available for this weekend’s Six Nations clash with Italy at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium.
Having been sidelined for much of the championship with a hamstring complaint, Payne has come through training away from the squad last week and now looks set to return to the squad as they gear up for the vital contest against the Azzurri, according to the Irish Independent.
While the return of the versatile centre/full-back is a boost, the question now is, do Ireland actually need him?
While Payne has been away rehabilitating following his leg injury, Ireland appear to have found a pairing that has all the signs of becoming something special.
For the England contest two weeks ago, head coach Joe Schmidt handed Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey his first cap at centre and from the outset, his partnership with soon-to-be Leinster man Robbie Henshaw in the middle of the field yielded very promising returns.
Such was the success of the pairing at centre that it raises the possibility of Ireland having finally found a genuine replacement for the Brian O’Driscoll/Gordon D’Arcy partnership that bossed the centre for Ireland and Leinster for nearly a decade.
It is the hope now that Schmidt gives the McCloskey/Henshaw pairing a chance to establish itself, and this weekend’s clash with Italy in Dublin is certainly the perfect opportunity.
To many this might be seen as a preferred option, as Payne is more accustomed to full-back, a position he excels in for Ulster, week in, week out. With Schmidt’s loyalty to Leinster’s Rob Kearney in the no. 15 shirt, one might wonder if Payne would be chosen above Kearney or become a utility player off the bench.
For once this year, Ireland seemingly have some flexibility and options when it comes to selecting a side. This has been tempered by the news that following the weekend’s Pro 12 fixtures, Munster’s Tommy O’Donnell is returning to Carton House nursing a stinger injury, which he picked up in the province’s vital win over the Dragons on Saturday.
However, with the emergence of new cap Josh van der Flier as an exciting prospect in green, perhaps even then Schmidt is full of options.
If only the second row injuries woes could get sorted, then Ireland might actually have had a shot again this year.
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena
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