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Former Dragons halfback relishing life as a Bison in France

03 Nov 21, 6:51AM 0 Comments

Written by Stuart McLennan

Photo by Justine Rey

When it comes to rugby league bucket list goals it wouldn’t be surprising to see a young athlete list playing on the other side of the world as a top line item. Playing a first grade game with Dad would be up there for many.

Well 24 year old Avignon halfback, Australian Jack Payne, can cross both those items off the list and move on to the next.

After growing up in Campbelltown in the south west of Sydney, the slightly built number 7 played his first rugby league for Macarthur Saints in Rosemeadow up until under 16’s before switching to the Mittagong Lions.

It was with the Southern Highlands club that Jack was fortunate to play a few games of local first grade with his dad (Robbie Payne) when he was still in the under 18’s.

“I was a tiny halfback and he was a big prop, so he looked after me a lot,” Payne admitted.

Contracted to St George Illawarra while attending the University of Wollongong, Payne represented the Red V in the under 20s and NSW Cup and had a stint with Mounties in the Ron Massey Cup before deciding it was time for adventure and travel in late 2019.

“The opportunity to come to France and play rugby league came up, and I thought if I didn’t take the chance I would regret it. I’d never been to Europe before, so the chance to live in and immerse myself in a completely different culture was too good to pass up. I always heard how beautiful the south of France was, so here I am. And now I have just started my third season.”

While Payne has settled in well now at Avignon, his lack of understanding of the French language proved to be an on-field barrier when he arrived.

“At first the hardest thing was the language. Even little things like the tackle count being in French, I would always get the ball on last, not realising it was the last tackle. But once I picked up the footy lingo it got a lot easier. The level is pretty good, very physical, and they love trying to smash the foreigner!

“The level isn’t too far off what I was playing in the Ron Massey Cup, there are some good French players coming up. And each season I think it’s gotten harder, the coaching is getting better, the players, the referees, all of it. I’m very lucky in that a fair few of the players in my team speak good English, so we can always communicate on and off the field, whether in French or English. The coach, Renaud Guigue, also speaks good English. He’s been great for me here, let’s me play my natural game but still helps me improve in every part of my game.

Payne has started the season well, scoring three tries in the first two matches, while Avignon have recorded a loss and a win so far.

Off the field he is relishing life in the south of France where the locals have made him feel welcome.

“Life in Avignon is great. It’s a really great city, with heaps of things to do. And the people are lovely. You always hear the stereotypes of the French back in Australia, but the people here are lovely, very hospitable, and even if your language skills aren’t good, if you make the effort they appreciate it and will do anything to help you out.

“By now my French is pretty good, I haven’t needed a translator in a while. I’ve learnt, as bad as it sounds, a lot of my French by going to the pub with my mates and just talking. After a few beers your confidence is up and you can talk a lot more freely. I’ve learnt a lot from my girlfriend, she’s English but is fluent in French, so she’s helped a lot.”

Avignon played in the Elite 1 Championship finals last season and Payne is confident the Bisons can go one better, praising the attitude and culture within the club.

“I’m pretty confident we can go far this season. We’ve built on the team we had last year, where we narrowly lost to Carcassonne in the semi final. The whole teams’ been training hard, and the coaches have a good game plan which seems to work well with our team. As with all seasons there are injuries, but we have good depth, and some good juniors who have started training with the Elite1 squad who will definitely get their chance throughout the season. As long as we keep training hard and having fun while we’re doing it, we will go far.

“It will definitely be hard to beat Lezignan, but I think we have a really good advantage in that all the pressure will be on Lezignan. We have nothing to lose going into the games with them. With the right attitude defensively we can beat anyone. And at the end of the day, they’re just another team, anyone can win.”

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