‘I just hope that the players who have high hopes of making the team make it onto the tour’

AS A FORMER British and Irish Lion himself, Ulster assistant coach Jared Payne hopes that the province’s current crop of hopefuls will be receiving good news tomorrow when this year’s squad is announced.

Warren Gatland is set to name his 38-man squad for the tour to South Africa tomorrow and there are several Ulster players who would be considered as being in the mix to get the call.

Club captain Iain Henderson probably represents their best hope as he is widely tipped to receive one of the second row slots, and his versatility as a potential option on the blindside flank will add another feather to his cap.

Perhaps more on the periphery of selection, but also in with a shout, would be hooker Rob Herring and winger Jacob Stockdale, while a wildcard selection could be scrum-half John Cooney, who continues to impress for club despite being overlooked by country.

Payne himself was one of the tourists in 2017′s drawn series to New Zealand, the former Ireland centre playing in three of the warm-up games but not featuring in any of the Tests against the All Blacks due to injury.

Now he hopes that some of the players he coaches – one of whom, Henderson, was also on that 2017 tour – will also receive the call he got when he was least expecting it.

“Personally, it came completely out of the blue for me,” he laughs when recalling how he was told he would be on the touring squad.

“It was a pretty awesome ride to tell you the truth. I was lucky enough to be among all the team when it came through so I got to celebrate it with them and it was pretty special.

“Those guys are in a different position to what I was in during my time and they’ll all have their own ways of dealing with the excitement levels. I just hope that the players who have high hopes of making the team make it onto the tour.

“It’d be a huge boost for the club so fingers crossed for everyone who is there or thereabouts.”

The mood around Kingspan Stadium could certainly do with a boost right now given the situation Ulster find themselves in after their Challenge Cup semi-final exit at the hands of Leicester Tigers last week.

Despite holding an 11-point lead at the interval, Dan McFarland’s side were dumped out of the competition by the Tigers, who roared back with 20 unanswered points in the second-half at Welford Road to claim a 33-24 win and set up a final with Montpellier.

The head coach admitted after the game that this defeat in particular would take some time to get over, but they don’t have much time to wallow in misery with a must-win Rainbow Cup interprovincial clash with Munster at Thomond Park on Friday.

Payne elaborated a bit on McFarland’s comments, revealing that what was said in the immediate aftermath was very close to the bone, but that they know the only way to truly move on from Friday’s events is to go again in Limerick exactly a week later.

“Exactly what was said (after the Leicester game) gets to stay between those four walls, and that’s the beauty of sport in our position,” says Payne.

“A few home truths were said but it was a sore place, everybody was pretty gutted. A lot of effort went into it, so we hurt. But we’re facing (the disappointment) head-on. You’ve got to address it, don’t you?

“If you hide away from it it’s going to eat you up inside, so we had a pretty good conversation among the groups (on Monday), dealt with what we needed to and got out on the pitch and got a bit of excitement among the boys, threw a ball around and played a bit of rugby which is what we love.

“Getting over it, learning from it and… dump it sounds like a bad word but that’s what you do. As soon as you’ve learnt from those mistakes you try and dump the bad feeling of losing and get excited about the next challenge.

“Going down to Munster, if you’re feeling down on yourself then you’ll be in a world of hurt. Definitely put a bit of time into getting everybody back on the horse and get going again.”