Jared Payne to make Ireland debut against South Africa
New-look midfield sees New Zealand-born Ulster star partner Connacht's Robbie Henshaw against the Springboks
Ulster utility-back Jared Payne will make his Ireland debut on Saturday as the only uncapped name in a strong team to face South Africa.
The 29-year-old New Zealand-born star is joined in a new-look Irish midfield with Connacht’s Robbie Henshaw at inside centre in the absence of veteran Gordon D’Arcy, whose participation in training this week was limited.
The two lads have got in there together and done a good job. We decided to go with the paring we had the most time with
Payne’s debut comes after he qualified for Ireland on residency after three years in Belfast with Ulster, and his switch to outside centre from full-back sees a return to the position he placed for the Blues in the 2011 Super Rugby campaign, and has been getting used to again in the PRO12 this season.
It will be Ireland’s biggest test in the midfield since the retirement of Brian O’Driscoll in the summer, as they go up against experienced Springboks campaigners and captain Jean de Villiers and 21-year-old Jan Serfontein, who has established himself as South Africa’s first-choice 13 this year, and head coach Joe Schmidt admitted injuries and a lack of practice time have been a factor in his selections.
“D’Arcy was injured last week,” Schmidt said. “He is back to full fitness now, but we weren’t sure of that at the beginning of the week.
“We have small windows of preparation. We come together for a very brief period of time.
“The two lads have got in there together and done a good job. We decided to go with the paring we had the most time with.
“It was going to be a new pairing no matter what, so we just decided to go with what had been working together.
“To be honest, I didn’t tell the centres in advance, I just named the team.
“It wasn’t too much of a surprise to them because they’d been running in there together.”
Henshaw, who usually plays 13 for his province, will hope to produce the game of his life against a Springboks side that is unchanged from the one that defeated the All Blacks in the final round of the Rugby Championship last month, but he did spend 40 minutes at 12 against in a 33-13 defeat at Exeter Chiefs in the European Challenge Cup last month.
“I know he started the game at 13,” Schmidt added. “If he ran at 12 it is no difference to Jean de Villiers: he defends at 13 and runs with 12 on his back.
“That’s what I said about centres. Gordon D’Arcy has played a lot of 13 this year.
“I do think that centres are interchangeable. With Robbie and Jared you may see a bit of that anyway.
“Ireland have been blessed with a centre pairing for a huge length of time that have not necessarily been the biggest, but been as physical as the best.
“Physicality is sometimes determined by the will rather than the size.
“Hopefully on Saturday we’ll get a bit of both from our centre pairing.”
Despite a lengthy injury list, head coach Schmidt has been able to welcome back a slew of familiar faces, led by Munster lock Paul O’Connell, who becomes Ireland’s most-capped second row with 95 caps.
In the back three, Rob Kearney returns at full-back, with Ulster’s Tommy Bowe overcoming concussion to take his place on the wings with Munster’s Simon Zebo.
Racing Metro’s Jonathan Sexton returns at outside-half alongside Munster’s Conor Murray.
Reigning Guinness PRO12 champions Leinster provide most of the forward options, including an all front row as hooker Sean Cronin gets the nod ahead of team-mate Richardt Strauss to pack down between Jack McGrath and Mike Ross, who has overcome a fitness battle to win a start despite not being fully fit, with Connacht’s Rodney Ah You providing tighthead cover from the bench.
In the engine room, Leinster giant Devin Toner will operate alongside captain O’Connell, with Leinster number 8 Jamie Heaslip joining Ulster flanker Chris Henry and Munster’s Peter O’Mahony in the back row.
Ireland: Rob Kearney (Leinster); Tommy Bowe (Ulster), Jared Payne (Ulster), Robbie Henshaw (Connacht), Simon Zebo (Munster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster); Jack McGrath (Leinster), Sean Cronin (Leinster), Mike Ross (Leinster), Devin Toner (Leinster), Paul O’Connell (Munster, captain), Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Chris Henry (Ulster), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster).
Replacements: Richardt Strauss (Leinster), Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Rodney Ah You (Connacht), Mike McCarthy (Leinster), Rhys Ruddock (Leinster); Eoin Reddan (Leinster), Ian Madigan (Leinster), Felix Jones (Leinster).