Heineken Cup: The sky is the limit for class act Darren Cave
Darren’s day of destiny at Twickenham can be really special for Ulster
Interviewing Darren Cave in a small room at Ulster's Newforge Country Club training base in Belfast, he spots a picture of the victorious 1999 European Cup squad on the wall.
“There they are,” the centre says, with a genuine sense of pride.
Cave was at Lansdowne Road as a young fan the day David Humphreys, Jonny Bell, Simon Mason and the rest of the Ravenhill heroes became kings of the continent.
He tells me that he has watched the video of the final every year since, imagining what it would be like to play in a match like that.
On Saturday, Darren's dream will become a reality when he lines out for Ulster against Leinster in the much anticipated Heineken Cup decider at Twickenham.
The desire to deliver drips out of the 25-year-old from Holywood.
What Ulster have achieved this season in getting this far has been magnificent but if Cave is an indication of the feeling in the ranks, they aren't finished yet. Not by a long chalk.
He's a good guy is Darren — one of the most popular blokes in the squad.
It's easy to see why. He's full of banter and I fancy would be great craic in the dressing room or on a night out with the boys.
It's not all play though. To reach the level he has, it can't be.
Laid back and fun off the pitch, he's a serious individual on it hugely committed to the Ulster cause.
He's also a high class performer who perhaps outside Ravenhill is not always given the credit his talent deserves.
Throughout our conversation Darren mentions his team-mates in glowing terms and he talks with respect but not fear about Saturday's opponents.
What comes across most of all though is that insatiable appetite to return home from London this weekend as a European champion.
Darren Cave loves his rugby. He's been throwing the oval ball around and running with it since he was five.
Chatting to him I get the feeling that he was destined to play in a match of this magnitude.
“I was in P1 when I started at Holywood Rugby club. My dad, Brian, was a coach of mini rugby and I loved it straight away. I started out as a scrum-half because I was small and playing with boys older than me but once I got to secondary school I became a centre,” he recalls.
“I always thought I could be a rugby player but that's the naivete of youth, isn't it? The careers teachers at school were always on at you to have this and that in place but rugby was always the big thing for me.
“I remember going to an Ulster Schools camp at the end of fifth year and they said two of you have a chance of becoming professional rugby players. I looked around the room and thought that's not a lot but I always hoped I would be one of them.”
It wasn't two but three who made it from that room full of aspiring young players with David Pollock and Paul Marshall joining Darren in the Ulster ranks.
Pollock, now retired due to injury, and Cave were actually the first players introduced to the Ulster Rugby Academy while still in school.
Darren went to Sullivan Upper in Holywood, the same school that Ulster's most famous fan Rory McIlroy attended, though golf's brightest young star is a couple of years younger.
Cave inspired Sullivan to Medallion Shield success and went on to study at Jordanstown doing Sports Science. Last year he gained a Masters degree in Sports Psychology.
You get the feeling there is always something going on in the 25-year-old's life, though this week his focus is solely on the Heineken Cup final.
As he speaks about Twickenham, and what it means to him and the fans his strength of feeling about Saturday shines through.
“We just have to try and win anyway we can,” he says.
“The semi-final experience at the Aviva stadium when we beat Edinburgh with Ulster flags everywhere was amazing but this can be even better.
“To hear about how people are getting to the final and the money they are spending especially in these tough economic times is humbling.
“You know families are going, having to shell out lots of money on flights and hotels. I've heard of all sorts of different routes being taken, so we better make sure they enjoy their day. We don't want to let those people down.”
Darren's mum Ruth, dad Brian and older brother Stuart will be in London for the big day.
“Yes, my family will be there... with bells on,” says Cave, with a chuckle.
“My family are all massive Ulster fans — the thing that hit me when we were on the coach on the way to the Aviva was if I wasn't playing, I'd be here watching and cheering the team on.
“I'm like one of the fans who is lucky enough to borrow the number 13 shirt for a few years. I was very humbled at the Aviva stadium and now there is Twickenham to look forward to.
“My dad is away on business a lot and he knew by November that he was going to be away for a lot of May but he looked at the fixtures and said he would never forgive himself if he missed Ulster in the final of the Heineken Cup final so he left this weekend open. He didn't tell me that at the time he was sitting thinking about us getting to the final because at that stage we were in the middle of the group stages and had a lot to do to reach the quarter-finals. He's going all round the world in May and one of those stop-offs is London on May 19.”
Cave adds: “I don't want to start reflecting on my career because I'm only 25 but this season more than ever there have been occasions when I've thought this really is incredible.
“The semi-final at the Aviva was one of those moments.
“I'm not satisfied with just winning a semi-final, but it was like when I won my first cap for Ulster or Ireland and I could always say that I played for Ulster and Ireland. Hopefully though this week I'll be able to say for the rest of my life that I've won a Heineken Cup.”
Cave secured his first full Ulster contract in 2008. He's seen highs and lows since. A major factor driving him and the team this weekend is some dark days in the past.
He says: “I started playing for Ulster when we couldn't buy two wins in a row and you were losing at home to Dragons and Glasgow and getting booed at Ravenhill.
“It was a nightmare. Had Stephen Ferris, Rory Best, Paddy Wallace and Andrew Trimble left around then we would have been nothing but thankfully they stayed and good foreign players have come in.
“We've come through tough times and worked hard to get here. Hopefully now we can reap the rewards.”