A los­ing bat­tle

Why the ABs must get used to fail­ure

Weekend Herald - - Front Page -

The way rugby is head­ing, with the con­tin­ued flow of pro­fes­sional coaches and play­ers from south to north, the global land­scape will be­come in­creas­ingly com­pet­i­tive and deal the All Blacks more fre­quent de­feats.

That’s the view of Jared Payne, the Kiwi turned Ir­ish in­ter­na­tional who is set­tling into his first full sea­son as Ul­ster de­fence coach af­ter his play­ing ca­reer was cut short by con­cus­sion which, 18 months on, still trou­bles him reg­u­larly.

“I still strug­gle a fair bit,” Payne, 33, says.

“I haven’t been to the gym since god knows when and don’t re­ally do any exercise be­cause I’m a bit wor­ried that’s go­ing to flair the head up be­cause I still get headaches ev­ery now and then through­out the week if I have a big day or I spend too much time in front of the com­puter it sets things off a bit.

“It’s about bal­anc­ing things and try­ing to limit the headaches.

‘‘They are set­tling down slowly but they still def­i­nitely flair up a bit.

“Long days of travel still get me, so it’s a bit dif­fer­ent but it is man­age­able, which is good.”

Payne’s be­lief that the All Blacks will be knocked over more of­ten in the com­ing years is not some­thing New Zealand rugby sup­port­ers are con­di­tioned to. But, it is dif­fi­cult to dis­pute.

Cer­tainly ev­i­dence in Novem­ber strongly sug­gested the north is fast im­prov­ing as the World Cup ap­proaches.

Al­though that test win­dow of­fers a mere snap­shot, and Ja­pan presents a vastly dif­fer­ent beast, the long-term fi­nan­cial chal­lenges the south faces in at­tempts to re­tain talent at all lev­els is not get­ting any eas­ier.

En­sconced in Belfast, North­ern Ire­land, for the past eight years where he and fiance Christina are rais­ing sons Tyler, 2½, and Jake, 1, Payne is well placed to as­sess the north and south di­vide.

The for­mer Blues, Cru­saders, Chiefs, Ir­ish and Li­ons util­ity who played his first and last match — on the 2017 Li­ons tour — at Waikato Sta­dium senses the stran­gle­hold the All Blacks had over their ri­vals is di­min­ish­ing.

“The All Blacks have done un­be­liev­ably well to be at the top for so long but it’s the na­ture of all rugby — it’s hap­pen­ing up here in club rugby with the so-called weaker teams get­ting bet­ter and the teams at the top find­ing it harder to stay there,” says Payne.

“Even­tu­ally that flows into world rugby and it’s go­ing to be tough on the All Blacks. They’re still an un­be­liev­able team to do what they’ve done. A few losses brings an over­re­ac­tion in New Zealand but it’s go­ing to hap­pen more and more in the fu­ture.

“The All Blacks are go­ing to keep lead­ing the world and if they do lose a few each year it’s not a big thing be­cause the stan­dard is get­ting bet­ter.

“There used to be a big gulf be­tween the New Zealand, Aus­tralian and South African club teams and those up here but I think it’s slowly evening out. There’s a lot of good club teams up here that would chal­lenge the best in the south­ern hemi­sphere any day of the week.”

Payne at­tributes this chang­ing dy­namic to a widen­ing knowl­edge pool cre­ated by the trans­fer­ring of in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty from play­ers and coaches, par­tic­u­larly those from New Zealand, when shift­ing abroad.

At the heart of these boom times for Ir­ish rugby, both on the test and Euro­pean club stage where Le­in­ster reign, is player man­age­ment.

Eng­land and France lag be­hind cen­trally-run mod­els but Ire­land, Scot­land and Wales are learn­ing to en­sure their best peak at the right times.

“Ire­land are get­ting re­sults and the play­ers are feel­ing fresh and en­joy­ing it.

“They’re very lucky the way they’re set up here be­cause you do speak to a lot of other guys and they play a lot of rugby and it does take a toll on your body with in­jury. Some­times it’s im­pos­si­ble to get up men­tally and phys­i­cally ev­ery week for 35 weeks in a year.

“Ire­land have a pretty good bal­ance and other places are try­ing to get that. Hope­fully in the next few years that bal­ance may get tweaked and you’ll see the stan­dard go up again.

“If they get that player man­age­ment side right it will get closer and closer. It’s shown, too, with the re­sults of the Novem­ber test se­ries,” says Payne.

“It’s go­ing to be tough for the All Blacks but they’ll find ways to try to stay ahead and other teams will try to chase them so it’s go­ing to be in­ter­est­ing over the next few years to see where things set­tle.

“I can’t re­mem­ber a World Cup be­ing this open. If you make the top eight, she is any­body’s game from there.” Dur­ing his 20 tests (2014/17) for Ire­land, Payne formed a close re­la­tion­ship with Kiwi coach Joe Sch­midt. So much so that as Payne made the tran­si­tion into coach­ing early last year he savoured a watch-an­dlearn ex­pe­di­tion on the na­tional team’s suc­cess­ful tour of Aus­tralia in June. “He’s in­cred­i­bly de­tailed and he’s got an in­cred­i­ble mind,” Payne says of Sch­midt. “He knows what he wants and what that looks like and he’s very good at get­ting that out of the play­ers. “On top of that, he’s a nice guy. He’ll come down hard on you and crack the whip at train­ing but when you switch off you can have a laugh with him as well he’s got that side too so he’s got that bal­ance.

“He’s a very good coach and it’s no sur­prise he’s got that team go­ing so well. He’s got some good play­ers but he’s got them to buy into his vi­sion and he works in­cred­i­bly hard to drive those guys in the right di­rec­tion. It’s al­most the per­fect storm for him. The type of per­son Joe is, he would go well with any team.

‘‘You could give him North­land un­der­15s and he would prob­a­bly make them a cham­pi­onship team in a cou­ple of years.”

De­spite his headache hang­overs, Payne holds no re­grets from his play­ing days.

Emerg­ing from Pa­pamoa to first fea­ture for Waikato and North­land, he never en­vi­sioned rep­re­sent­ing so many teams or find­ing a new home on the other side of the world.

“Con­cus­sion has come a long way since I started.

‘‘When you see some of the stuff guys com­ing up did when I was young and how it is looked at now, the fo­cus has mas­sively changed.

“At the start, it’s not some­thing you think about but it’s more at the fore­front of

peo­ple’s thoughts now which is good be­cause you don’t want peo­ple to get last­ing ef­fects af­ter rugby do you?

“We do take risks but you don’t want it im­pact­ing the rest of your life so peo­ple are do­ing the right thing these days the way they are look­ing af­ter peo­ple.

“If you told me when I de­cided to leave New Zealand I would rep­re­sent Ul­ster and Ire­land and be lucky enough to get a few games for the Li­ons, I would have laughed at you and called you some­thing funny and car­ried on with life. ‘‘I’m over the moon with how it has worked out.”

Payne faced the All Blacks twice for a 1-1 record.

These days he diplo­mat­i­cally sug­gests he sits on the fence when Ire­land chal­lenge New Zealand but, as far as ca­reer high­lights go, de­feat­ing his coun­try of birth in 2016 ranks right up there.

“It was a whirl­wind week. Go­ing to Chicago and play­ing the All Blacks was a big buzz then ev­ery­thing that went on with the Cubs and hav­ing heaps of mates over and see­ing the city in full party mode, it was sur­real and then to top it off with that per­for­mance; it was un­real.

“It was some­thing you al­ways want to hap­pen but you never re­ally ex­pect a week to go that well. It’s some­thing now I look back on with huge pride. It was un­be­liev­able to be in­volved with the first Ir­ish team to beat the All Blacks.”

Should his pre­dic­tion prove cor­rect, such re­sults may soon be more com­mon.

A few losses brings an over­re­ac­tion in New Zealand but it’s go­ing to hap­pen more and more in the fu­ture.

Jared Payne

Photo / Pho­to­sport

Ire­land’s Kiwi con­nec­tion, Jared Payne (left) and Bundee Aki, have helped make the green ma­chine a po­tent force in world rugby.

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