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Thursday 17 August 2017

Ulster must feel the Payne to take down Toulon

OVER THE LINE: Jared Payne scores for Ulster
OVER THE LINE: Jared Payne scores for Ulster

Ulster v Toulon, Kingspan Stadium, Tomorrow 1.0 (Live Sky Sports 2)

It was interesting to note how Ireland coach Joe Schmidt was almost convinced to take Ian Keatley to Argentina in the summer on the back of how the Munster out-half went against Toulon in the last Heineken Cup semi-final.

Perhaps Jared Payne (below) can swing the pendulum of favour for the Ireland number thirteen jersey in his direction in the two-man contest with Connacht's Robbie Henshaw by standing out against the champions tomorrow.

It is going to take something pretty special for Ulster to dethrone the French club, even at Ravenhill, especially when both of them did not perform as expected on the first weekend.

Quite simply, Toulon have the greater scope through improved personnel input and/or the power to make changes should Director of Rugby Bernard Laporte deem it appropriate.

On paper, the All Whites are a million miles, or should that be euros, away from what the French club can underwrite.

These games are not played out in the media or even in the minds of those directly involved. Ultimately, actions speak louder than all the word spoken and written.

The key for Ulster is that they have to hit Toulon hard and early with a storm of pressure, get out to a lead and keep playing.

Or else, they can go toe-to-toe with Toulon and rely on the fact that Jonny Wilkinson is not there to work them out of a hole with his tactical nous and drop goals.

The Northern Province took another blow when Andrew Trimble joined those on the sideline with a toe injury that will keep him out for the medium-term future.

It will also take all of Paddy Jackson's maturity and will-to-win to shelve the utter devastation he must have felt at being left out of Ireland's November squad. The 22 year-old's career is a stark reminder of how coaches should tread carefully when it comes to pushing talented young men before they are ready.

Jackson has never really been able to stamp his authority at out-half because he plays in the shadow of Ulster's real playmaker Ruan Pienaar in a role that is similar to that implemented in South Africa and France. He has spent most of his time at ten with the real control in the hands of another.

It is only when Ulster moves away from a style of play where the nine is the main bread-winner that he will start to fully blossom.

 

Exeter Chiefs v Connacht, Sandy Park, Saturday 3.0

A simple question: "Is Robbie Henshaw ready for international rugby at thirteen?" A clever answer: "He is more ready than he was last year".

It will come as no great surprise that the answer flowed from Ireland coach Joe Schmidt on Wednesday.

Over the course of these two weeks, there is something of an uneven playing pitch about the one-on-one between Henshaw and Jared Payne.

The former did his work in the backwater Challenge Cup at home to a depleted and completely disinterested La Rochelle last week, while Payne tested himself against Leicester Tiger Manu Tuilagi, before the latter limped out of the game.

The point is that Payne enjoyed the motivation and the spotlight of the big games where he could truly be judged on merit against the muscular Tigers.

The same will ring true against whichever world-known midfield he will encounter at The Kingspan around lunchtime tomorrow.

Henshaw must have been cheered by the support of Brian O'Driscoll this week and it is natural size and embrace of the physicality of the game that could get him into the shirt for South Africa.

The Exeter Chiefs are nobody's idea of a soft target, especially at the wonderfully cramped, atmospheric Sandy Park.

Their coach Rob Baxter was wounded by the late fall to Bayonne in round one of this secondary competition, which has been devalued by not offering up a Champions Cup place for the winners.

The Chiefs, not unlike Connacht, is a family club where the players are as tightly knit as an aran jumper.

They would have seriously fancied their chances in a competition where the French clubs are begrudging participants unless they are at home. Connacht looked for continuity at home to La Rochelle and they got it. This will be completely different.

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