Darren Cave is enjoying his rugby like never before and it shows. Here is a gifted 22-year-old who plays the game with a smile on his face.
And so far this season the Ulster centre has had plenty to smile about.
Ulster the also-rans in last season’s Magners League are now under new management and making waves after showing some early season promise.
Victory in the Heineken Cup opener over Bath under the Ravenhill lights was a significant step in Ulster’s rehabilitation.
A similar outcome against Edinburgh in Murrayfield tomorrow afternoon would rubber stamp their ongoing resurgence.
Cave, a former pupil of Sullivan Upper and who played his club rugby with Belfast Harlequins, talks with great enthusiasm of how Brian McLaughlin’s men have buried the memory of last season when they seemed to trudge from one disaster to another.
“At the start of this season I wasn’t too sure just how things would work out,” he said.
“Last season we had a good enough squad of players, but we still finished too close to the bottom for comfort.
“But the contrast with this and last couldn’t be greater. It’s amazing just how much more enjoyable it is to play with Ulster this season.
“As someone who likes to play with ball in hand, to have us running with the ball and scoring tries, it makes such a difference.”
An early season win over the Ospreys offered a hint of better times ahead but losing to the Dragons was a reminder of the dangers of taking anything for granted.
As Cave reflects on the transformation in Ulster’s fortunes he looks no further than coach Brian McLaughlin and his hard working back-up team.
“Brian and Jeremy Davidson have worked ever so hard on how best we approach the breakdown.
“It means that we’re attacking with the ball in hand and our ruck is up so much quicker which leaves opposing defences with less time to get organised.
“Neil Doak too has made a significant contribution in improving our option taking when in possession.”
Paddy Wallace is convinced that Ulster’s pre-season training — not for the faint hearted — is now paying handsome dividends as was shown late in the match against Bath when Ulster bossed a bigger visiting eight.
Cave isn’t about to argue with Paddy’s assessment, the memory of running on Barnett’s Demense and Portrush are still a painful memory.
And he’s convinced that Ulster’s group is easily the most competitive in the Heineken Cup.
“Realistically we’ve as good a chance as anyone else. Beating Bath was a terrific result, but we’ve got to build on that and effectively that means getting a result against Edinburgh tomorrow evening in Murrayfield.
“They beat us fair and square in the Magners League, but we did enough that night to suggest we can put one over on them this time.”
Darren who first tasted the delights of rugby at the Holywood club is quick to acknowledge the contribution of his rugby mad parents Brian and Ruth as well as his older brother Stuart.
The younger Cave hasn’t looked back since being invited to join the Ulster Academy by Allen Clarke.
Next step was Belfast Harlequins and recognition by Ulster A and the under-21s.
In last season’s Churchill Cup he played a starring role as Ireland swept all before them.
Earlier this season he was included in an enlarged Ireland squad, further indication of the progress this affable 22-year-old continues to make.
But for now Irish aspirations have been put on hold as he focuses on Heineken Cup and further glory with a resurgent Ulster.
Cave and his colleagues have every reason to travel to Scotland in a confident mood, but Edinburgh, without being world beaters, have the ability to make life difficult.
Patience and discipline aplenty will be needed if Brian McLaughlin and his men are to return home with their unbeaten Heineken Cup record intact.