Jared Payne could make surprise return to RBS 6 Nations action for Ireland
JARED Payne has moved a step closer to a surprise Six Nations appearance after returning to Ireland's training squad.
The 31-year-old centre had been all-but ruled out of the tournament owing to a serious kidney injury suffered in November but fought back to action for Ulster last weekend.
Now head coach Joe Schmidt has named Payne in his squad to prepare for the final two Six Nations clashes, with Wales and England.
Payne's return could hand Ireland a significant boost in their bid to secure a winner-takes-all final weekend showdown with England in Dublin on March 18.
Ireland's backline defensive captain would doubtless shore up Schmidt's side's rearguard approach if recalled to the starting line-up to face Wales in Cardiff next Friday.
Ireland must now weigh up whether Payne will be ready to return in Cardiff after a three-month lay-off, or to keep faith with Garry Ringrose at outside centre.
“The guys that have battled for us in the last few weeks certainly have to be rewarded,” said Ireland scrum coach Greg Feek, earlier this week.
“Jared has obviously got a huge amount of respect from the coaching staff and players.
“I know the players have a lot of respect for him as well so it's our duty to see how he's going.”
Payne suffered his injury in Ireland's 27-24 win over Australia in Dublin on November 26.
Fit-again Leinster fly-half Joey Carbery returns to Ireland's squad ahead of Munster's Ian Keatley, with Ulster centre Luke Marshall also named in a 36-strong training squad.
Carbery had missed the first three rounds of Six Nations action with an ankle problem.
BILLY Vunipola could be available to reinforce the final two rounds of England's Grand Slam defence as he prepares to complete his comeback from a knee injury for Saracens on Sunday.
In a massive lift for the RBS 6 Nations champions, the bulldozing number eight is poised to be included in the matchday squad for the Aviva Premiership trip to Newcastle.
If he proves his fitness, Vunipola is sure to come under serious consideration for Scotland's visit to Twickenham tomorrow week, providing the ball-carrying threat England have sorely missed in his absence.
The 24-year-old was expected to sit out the entire Six Nations because of the ligament damage sustained against Argentina during the autumn until Eddie Jones raised the prospect of him returning for the potential title decider against Ireland on March 18.