When the 41 chosen men were revealed, Jared Payne was the unlikeliest Lion of them all, given that Warren Gatland once concluded he was not good enough to play provincial rugby for Waikato.
No wonder Ulster and Ireland’s Kiwi back – adept at full back or centre – was so shocked to be included among the best of the best from Britain and Ireland.
The coach whose decision, years ago, had forced him to move away from home to pursue a professional career, had revised his opinion of Payne emphatically.
New Zealand-born Jared Payne could line up against the All Blacks later this month
‘I would have thought you were crazy if you’d told me when Warren released me from Waikato that I would be playing under him again for the British and Irish Lions,’ he told Sportsmail. ‘It’s funny how the world works.
‘Back then, I had an opportunity to move up to Northland. They weren’t as good as Waikato but I backed myself, went up there and managed to push on from there. Funnily enough, my first game for Northland was against Waikato and we beat them.
‘That was pretty special for me. I think Warren had left by then anyway. In the end, it has worked out for the best for the pair of us, I guess!’
Payne was a surprise inclusion in Warren Gatland’s 41-man squad for the Lions tour
Payne’s connection with Gatland goes beyond the quirk of how their career paths have collided.
The player has also emulated the coach in being a native of Waikato – in New Zealand’s north island – and both made their breakthroughs in Ireland. Gatland made his name in Galway while Payne has made his in Belfast.
But there was a reminder of shared roots when the 31-year-old was back in the land of his birth in January, staying with his parents in Cambridge, outside Hamilton.
He recalled: ‘The only time that someone said anything (about the Lions) was when we were at Waihi Beach one day. That’s where Warren Gatland has a holiday house!’
The reason Payne had returned home in the middle of a domestic campaign was because he was recovering from a freak and frightening injury – a fractured kidney.
Payne once played under Gatland at provincial rugby club Waikato in New Zealand
The trouble became apparent when he was stood at the urinals in the Ireland dressing-room at the Aviva Stadium, at half-time in the autumn Test against Australia. ‘I thought it was just the beetroot juice that we sometimes have,’ said Payne.
‘In the first half I made a pass and got half-checked by their No 12. My side was a bit tender, but I thought nothing of it and carried on playing.
‘They sent me to the hospital for a scan and said that I would be back by the end of the game, but I didn’t get out until five days later. It’s not as if there was rehab you could do to make it better. I just had to rest.’
Gatland deemed Payne was not good enough and allowed him to leave for rivals Northland
The trip back to New Zealand was an unexpected bonus for Payne, allowing him to catch up with old friends.
Much the same happened in Chicago last November, albeit with a remarkable twist. In his first Test encounter with an All Blacks side containing several former team-mates, Payne helped Ireland claim a maiden win over the world’s No 1 rugby nation.
He managed to avoid the faux pas of singing the opposition’s anthem out of habit. As for facing the haka, that didn’t faze him in the least.
‘You get brought up with the haka in New Zealand,’ he said.
Payne went on to play for the Chiefs, Crusaders and Blues before joining Ulster in 2011
‘At all the big school games you do hakas against each other, so you have to face them a lot and there are a lot more intimidating ones. They get right up in your face as a young fella, some really big boys, so personally I didn’t find it intimidating when we faced the All Blacks.
‘I just watched it then got on with the game.’
Over time, Payne has embraced a cultural shift from New Zealand to Ireland, in line with the switch of sporting allegiance. But being back in his own country for the next six weeks will at least allow him to reclaim his Kiwi heritage in terms of casual footwear, or a lack of it.
Flip-flops – known in New Zealand as ‘jandals’ – are the staple.
‘My missus told me off one time when I walked into the supermarket in bare feet,’ he said.
The 31-year-old could face his former side when the Lions take on the Blues on Wednesday
‘She told me, ‘That’s not what you’re supposed to do here’! So I’ve tried to be a bit better – but I still get the jandals out every now and then. I just make sure I don’t get caught bare-footed!’
As one of two New Zealanders in the Lions squad, Payne’s insight will be helpful.
Gatland has spoken about how the host nation would expect their teams to win every game on this tour.
Payne agrees, adding: ‘You play to win. That’s how you’re brought up there. Every team will be out to knock us over.
‘Those Super Rugby teams will have nothing to lose against us, but if they win that is a pretty big scalp. It’s going to be fun!’