Schmidt still seeking settled midfield mix

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    10 Feb 2019     Getty Images

However, the New Zealand midfield connection has been, and looks like continuing to be, central to Ireland's hopes heading to the World Cup.

In Schmidt's 63 games at the helm, 16 centres have played in 27 different combinations. By comparison, before his time, Ireland's midfielders of Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll started 56 Tests as a pair. Their last six were in Schmidt's era.

The only combination to have done better than those six games is Robbie Henshaw and New Zealander Jared Payne who started 13 Tests together.

Lately it has been Bundee Aki providing the midfield binding with 14 starts in Ireland's last 17 Tests.

Payne reflected on the development of his combination with Henshaw which started in 2014 against South Africa, when Ireland won 29-15 in The Irish Times.

"It was a nice start. That game is always a good memory. I was pretty nervous. I hadn't thought too much about the game; I was worried about singing 'Ireland's Call'," he said.

But no sooner had he made his debut that he was out for three months with a foot injury.

However, he returned for the Six Nations in 2015 in which they beat Scotland 40-10 with Payne scoring his first Test try.

"I'll never forget that day. It was pretty special everything that happened. I don't think you could have written it any better," he said.

"Defensively, you learn to trust the guy inside you. There's nothing like proper game time.

"You try to develop an instinctive relationship in attack and 'D', and after a few games you can pre-empt what they're going to do to work with them.

"I'd tell Robbie what I wanted out of him and he'd tell me what he wanted out of me. At first it was very much a work in progress. It was a testament to him, because he had played a lot more at fullback then and was just starting in the midfield at '12'. He showed what a talented footballer he is to be able to slot in there and do as good a job as he did," he said.

Missing out on the 2015 Rugby World Cup was a frustration for Payne.

"I stripped some muscles off the bone in my foot against Romania. We tried to rehab it and injected it to take the pain away. Then I was good to go but unfortunately my foot flared over the next few days. We got it X-rayed and I had broken my foot in training, so I had to pull out of the World Cup, which was not one of my career highlights."

Henshaw and Payne were back together in 2016-17, including the win over the All Blacks in Chicago.

"I think, from memory, we did an all right job, didn't we?"

But two weeks later in the return match, Henshaw was off the field after 10 minutes with an injury.

"Jeez, it was a physical test that one, wasn't it? You're never going to poke the bear and not expect a reaction. We definitely got one that day. You hear a lot of people say it was out of order or whatever, but it was just a pretty tough physical Test match," he said.

It proved the last time the pair would play together.

In his next outing Payne suffered a fractured kidney against Australia.

Payne's last game for Ireland was at fullback in the 2017 Six Nations finale against England. It was his 20th cap but concussion issues resulting from the British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand forced his premature retirement.

Payne is now coaching with Ulster in Ireland.