Ireland back Jared Payne has a solid chance of being named in the Lions squad. With a possible five centres and two fullbacks set to travel, the versatile Kiwi should be on head coach Warren Gatland’s radar.
For the 2013 tour of Australia, Gatland brought four set centres, with another two brought in for backline cover. If he sticks to what he knows for 2017, we can break it down to see where Payne may get the nod.
The bookies’ favourites of Owen Farrell, Robbie Henshaw, Jonathan Joseph and Jonathan Davies are strong contenders for the 12 and 13 jerseys respectively. This leaves a fifth player in the mix.
Fullback favourites Stuart Hogg and Leigh Halfpenny should travel. Winger and fullback Liam Williams, with Elliot Daly, who can cover centre, wing and fullback, may get the nod. They put in strong performances in the Six Nations.
Gatland may opt to bring another player who can make the transition between outside centre and 15 with ease, however. Like in 2013, he will need more backline cover. Payne has shown his depth in both areas of the pitch.
So why should Payne be picked ahead of someone else?
Returning from injury, the Ulsterman put in a strong showing against England. Switching to fullback, he was defensively sound, and whilst pundits may argue about his attacking ability, he made 106 metres with ball in hand, the highest of any player on the pitch, according to accenture-rugby.com.
The below stats showed his worth at half-time during the game.
— Accenture Rugby (@AccentureRugby) March 18, 2017
Since returning for Ulster, Payne has scored twice in three games. Albeit against relatively weak opposition, it shows he is returning to form after the three-month layoff.
Payne has the experience of high level test rugby. Switching to fullback for the June tests against South Africa, Payne put in two strong performances against the Springboks. After a historical victory in South Africa, Payne rounded off a captivating 2016 by beating the All Blacks. His performances at both outside centre and fullback have shown his capability against the world’s best.
Beginning his career in New Zealand, Payne has played with the Super Rugby sides the Lions will face. The mix of home nation players will need a mind like Payne on the pitch.
His strong performances for Ulster, along with the November Internationals and his showing against England, have helped his cause.
Payne’s strong leadership and communication qualities combined with his excellent reading of the game will be an asset to any Lions side.
Fergal Nolan, Pundit Arena
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