Jared Payne added to Ulster's European Champions Cup squad

New Zealand-born Jared Payne has won 10 caps for Ireland
New Zealand-born Jared Payne has won 10 caps for Ireland

Centre Jared Payne appears set for an imminent return to action after being named as an additional player in Ulster's European Champions Cup squad.

The 30-year-old is unlikely to feature against Oyonnax on Sunday but could play a part in the following two games.

Payne suffered a fractured foot in Ireland's World Cup win over Romania.

Payne replaces the de-registered Peter Nelson, whose season is over after he suffered a broken foot in last month's Pro12 game against Edinburgh.

After this weekend's rearranged game in France, Ulster travel to face Saracens at Allianz Park on Saturday 16 January, then host Oyonnax at Kingspan Stadium on 23 January.

The suggestion that the Irish-qualified Kiwi may play again at some point over the upcoming three-game segment of European pool games will come as a boost to Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, with the start of the Six Nations just one month away.

Payne played in Ireland's opening two games at the World Cup in September and scored a try on his tournament debut against Canada.

Centre partnership

After sustaining his foot injury in the pool match with Romania, Payne was ruled out of the side which went on to defeat France the day before the game.

The 10-times capped back was part of Ireland's 2015 Six Nations triumph, having formed a formidable centre partnership with Robbie Henshaw, who is currently nursing a hand injury.

Ulster head coach Neil Doak this week effectively ruled out the prospect of Payne making a return this weekend, but both he and fellow centre Darren Cave are likely to come into the reckoning for the away game with pool leaders Saracens.

Craig Gilroy is understood to have recovered from a facial injury and is set to be involved in the Ulster line-up, which will be announced on Friday.

Stuart Olding, who has been out since last March with a cruciate ligament injury, is also close to returning.

It appears, however, that prop Wiehahn Herbst may not be fit for the trip to Oyonnax while full-back Louis Ludik and wing Rory Scholes are also understood to be doubtful for the game.

After a disappointing opening European defeat by Saracens, impressive back-to-back wins over Toulouse have put Ulster back in contention for a place in the knockout stages but they may need three closing victories to secure their last-eight berth.