Darren Cave’s restoration to full fitness at what is euphemistically known as ‘the business end of the season’ could not be more timely.
With Irish international centre Paddy Wallace out for the remainder of the 2010/11 campaign, after suffering a broken thumb in last Saturday’s 34-26 defeat by Leinster at the RDS, and midfield protégé Luke Marshall also in dry dock through injury, Ulster have been whittling down their stock of 12s and 13s at an alarming rate.
While Cave is sympathetic towards others now going through what has been the story of most of his season, he is happy that for him that long period of having to wait, work, watch and worry is finally over.
A hamstring injury picked up in November sidelined him for three months. When he returned to action in mid-March, Cave then had to endure the double whammy of a fresh injury which ruled him out for another few weeks.
“That probably was the toughest part of the season — to come back against the Dragons and score a nice try at the end and just to have that feeling of relief,” Cave admitted.
“When you’re out for three months you sort of doubt whether or not you’re ever going to be able to score the tries and do all that again. To come back and do it and just to feel so good about it, but then to be out for three or four weeks and miss the Heineken Cup quarter-final was a big hit to take.
“For me now it’s just about looking forward and seeing what I can do to help the team for the rest of the season.”
Having won two Irish caps during the 2009 summer tour, a loss of form in 2009/10 followed by this season’s injury problems saw Cave disappear off Declan Kidney’s radar. Not surprisingly the Ulsterman, who has just turned 24, is keen to remind Ireland’s head coach of what he has to offer.
If he is to do that he must first nail down a place in Brian McLaughlin’s side where the fight for midfield places will be tougher than ever next season with New Zealander Jared Payne on his way. But Cave welcomes the forthcoming scrap for jerseys.
“At the start of the year I don’t think there was enough competition. But now it’s incredible and next year it’s going to be — I was going to say even worse — but even better!” he said.
“At the start of the season there’s always lots of players. You look at the back row, for example, and you think, ‘How’s everyone going to play?’ But last year Matt McCullough retired, Tamaiti Horua retired and David Pollock retired this year so there will be opportunities for everyone.”
Unselfishly, Cave appears to be genuinely excited by the potential Ulster will possess behind the scrum in 2011/12.
“It makes for good watching; there’s a hell of a lot of good players in that back line who can score a lot of nice tries,” he said.
Indeed, Cave is honest enough to concede that during his lengthy stint in the grandstand there where moments when he wondered if he would be able to reclaim his place. Nevin Spence got better and better with each passing game and even with Wallace away on Six Nations duty, Ulster kept their show on the road.
“They’ve played some fantastic rugby at times. I think back to the home game against Cardiff when I sat watching and thinking, ‘This is brilliant’. But at the same time I was thinking, ‘I’m not going to feature’,” he said.
“But you’ve just got to trust that when you get an opportunity you take it. People have done really well, but I’ve got 50-something (56) Ulster caps and a couple of Ireland caps so I’ve been round the block as well and I know I can produce decent performances at that level.
“It’s just about trying to get opportunities to get back out there and do it again.”
As for the prospect of playing alongside Spence in Wallace’s absence, Cave does not see the fact that both of them prefer to line out at 13 as creating a problem.
“Nevin has played a lot of rugby at 12 as well, but I think centre partnership numbers are often over-analysed. I think it’s more about combinations,” he said.
“If I was named in the starting team I’d be delighted and I wouldn’t be worrying too much about who’s playing inside or outside me.
“Obviously it won’t be Paddy Wallace for the rest of the season, but if Nevin was beside me or Ian (Whitten) was beside me, it wouldn’t matter. I’d just like to be out there.”