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Darren Cave is aiming to be the centre of attention

Darren targets midfield berth for club and country

By Michael Sadlier

It was all a bit strange really as the Ulster contingent who were called down to Joe Schmidt's two-day gathering at Carton House, at the start of the week, looked on as Les Kiss deftly stepped back to his normally defined role in the national set-up.

Up to that point, Darren Cave, along with his provincial team-mates in the extended Ireland squad, had been growing accustomed to Kiss taking the lead as his temporary role as interim head coach at Ulster has been up and running since the summer's pre-season.

Now, though, it was more a case of taking on board the reality that Kiss's time at Ulster is inevitably coming to a close as simply pondering on the strangeness of seeing the highly regarded Australian decked out on different livery and following Schmidt's lead.

"It makes it quite bizarre to see Les here (in Belfast) and then go down and see him in the Irish set-up," Cave admits after having attended the Ireland gathering.

"I really don't know how to describe it other than it was a bit different. It's just different having worked with him at Ireland to see him here every day.

"Every meeting at Ulster he starts in front of the group and he leads training while at Ireland he's the defence coach.

"When he's at Ulster he obviously has a bigger role than at Ireland," he says treading carefully over his observation.

The line of conversation inevitably stays on things Ireland and the rather dog-eared matter of who may be occupying the number 13 jersey for the autumn internationals with Cave having, of course, been the first player to do so in last summer's first Test in Argentina.

There is no straightforward answer to this conundrum and Cave rightly chooses to deftly side-step the burning issue.

"I think that anyone who plays in the Ulster backline over the next few weeks has a good chance of getting the gig for Ireland.

"It could be a number of players and at the end of the day I suppose it's healthy that you've got so many players competing here and ultimately I think Ulster are going to benefit," the 27-year-old, who is closing in fast on is 140th Ulster appearance, states.

"Obviously I just want to play," he adds, referring to the current logjam of players vying to make Ulster's midfield.

And, of course, with Jared Payne's emergence as a more than viable number 13, Cave has also found himself being asked to play at inside centre – he even togged out there in the second Test in Argentina – which is also inevitably thrown up to him over the way things have altered regarding selection, though he starts today at Zebre wearing number 13 but in another altered midfield with Stuart McCloskey inside him.

"I've said that my opportunities to play 12 have been limited because we've so many good players here who can play there," is Cave's response.

"If you look at it from Les's point of view, or anyone else who is coaching Ulster, and you see that you've got Stuart Olding, Luke Marshall or Stuart McCloskey who are all out and out 12s.

"But I enjoy playing it and if someone was to say 'would you like to play 12 or not at all?' obviously I just want to be in the team, put it that way."

It is interesting to note that the composition of Ulster's midfield has been different for the first four games which may suggest that the best combination has yet to play or gel together, or that with Jared Payne out injured it has been a work in progress to get the balance sufficiently right.

However, there is also some traction to the notion that this area is so intensely competitive this season that alterations will inevitably be made though there is the overriding fear that this will not be conducive to an established midfield combination emerging. Funnily enough, Cave doesn't buy into the latter theory.

"I've played a lot of games with Stuart Olding at 12 and Luke Marshall at 12 and I've played some and done a lot of training inside Jared Payne and I've also played with Stuart McCloskey.

"But from jumping in and out of Ireland training there are different combinations every day, one day Ian Madigan is at 12 and the next day it's Stuart Olding up here and you could even be in at 12 so I think it's actually just something you get used to."

Two weeks ago, when Zebre were in Belfast, he had to leave the action with a rib cartilage problem though by then he had already made a significant line break to set Rory Best early up for what looked like the opening try only for his skipper to drop the pass.

Cave, who also pulled up early with cramp last week at the Blues, knows that Ulster simply cannot afford to let scoring chances go begging in Parma as the five-try romp they enjoyed in the Kingspan two weeks ago is unlikely to be repeated at a venue they have found rather challenging in recent seasons.

And the fact that the Italians have lost all three opening games does not mean a great deal to Cave as Ulster go hunting down a third straight win to add to the opening draw rescued at the Scarlets.

"We know they are a different team at home. They did ship points against Cardiff in round one but if you look at their last five results at home, going back into last season, they have only lost in that game to Cardiff."

"It's a tough place and they got close to us last time," he states though not mentioning his key try in last November's rather shaky 19-11 win at Zebre's home.

"We need to start well and take it from there. If we do that then their heads might drop and we could get a good result."

It all sounds like a reasonable plan.

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