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Darren Cave on mission to prove instrumental to Neil Doak's plans

By Michael Sadlier

While Darren Cave chews on the usual line of questioning for this time of the season, with much focus being on Ulster's need to see off Cardiff Blues tomorrow night to further bolster their PRO12 play-off ambitions, there is the matter of Jared Payne to also be discussed.

With Payne yet to return to Ulster from his triumphant first Six Nations campaign in a green shirt - he is expected to be back for the clash at Connacht on April 11 - the question is aired as to what will happen to outside centre Cave now that his team-mate at the Kingspan is a nailed-on choice at number 13 for Joe Schmidt in the national set-up.

Somehow, Payne being overlooked at outside centre for Ulster now seems rather unlikely, leaving Cave staring down the barrel for the Connacht game at either being dropped or moved inside to vie with Stuart Olding, Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall - the latter two are still serving bans, though McCloskey will be available for the game in Galway - for the chance to play inside centre.

Cave could fudge the question but, instead, he opts to address what seems to be looming just over the horizon when it comes to midfield selection.

"I think for the most part this season I've made it hard to be dropped," says the soon to turn 28-year-old who will make his 156th appearance for his province tomorrow night.

And he is not wrong there either having scored eight tries this campaign with a hat-trick of scores arriving in January's 26-7 demolition of Leicester Tigers, which at least ended a disappointing European season on an upbeat note.

"I knew before the Six Nations that Jared was a class player. From my point of view, though, I'll be doing everything I can to make sure that when Doaky (Neil Doak) is picking the team he wants me in it."

On the face of it, the prospect of the in-form Cave playing inside Payne seems to be the best solution but the competition at 12 is probably more intense than for any other place in the starting side.

Cave, though, has played inside centre before and, understandably, sounds more than willing to go again if it means that one of the squad's most experienced players can stay in the team.

"I see myself as definitely being able to play both positions and I actually played there (inside centre) last year in the (PRO12) semi-final with Jared and it actually went well," he says even though Ulster lost out to Leinster.

"But I can't worry about how everyone else is playing, and what Doaky is thinking, because it's a waste of energy. All I can control is how I play."

Indeed, perhaps because of the emergence of Payne as a rival, Cave has visibly put in more consistent performances this season.

He added another string to his bow in Ulster's last game when he led the side at the Dragons in the wake of Roger Wilson's ban, though that ended in a rather morale-shaking 26-22 defeat even though the losing bonus point put them second in the table.

"I felt that I was confident leading the team and I enjoyed it," Cave recalls.

"I don't think it reflects well, though, not so much losing the game but the manner in which we lost," he says.

Ulster's robust-looking league home record then crops up with all eight PRO12 games at the Kingspan this season ending victoriously for the squad. And with three of the remaining five regulation games being in Belfast, he is confident that they can put themselves in a good place regarding the semi-finals.

With the PRO12 looking set for a tight finish - five teams are currently battling it out for four places - it appears that a pretty awesome scrap is on the cards with the ultimate reward for Ulster being a top two finish, offering them a semi-final at the Kingspan with the final then tantalisingly also at their home ground.

"You could be thinking if we beat so many we'll be in second and at home, or if we do this we might make the top four, but it's just about winning games," Cave adds.

"I would find it hard for there to be a final in Belfast and not be in it. If we win games we'll be in it so the ball's in our court and the finger will be pointing nowhere but back towards us if we're not."

And with much of the previous talk having been about Payne's international breakthrough, there is still something to be said about Cave's ambitions and, in particular, his hope of making the cut for the World Cup squad.

"At the minute it's not about trying to make the plane, it's about trying to make the initial (45-man) squad that's picked before the (August) warm-up games," says eight-times capped Cave, who was with the national side's training squad for the Six Nations.

"You're talking five or hopefully seven games (in the PRO12) to hopefully say, 'look Joe I think I'm worthy of being in' for whatever he starts with.

"If you don't do enough in these games it's going to be a long summer. So that's something I'll be bearing in mind, but it will be in the back of my mind.

"Underlying all that is that I really want to win a trophy and the best way for me to do that is to just give everything to this team.

"It (winning the PRO12) will leave me in a good position internationally anyway, so it's not like there are two different agendas going on here."

Playing and winning is all that matters.

PRO12 League: Kingspan Stadium, Fri, 7.35pm (BBC2)

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