Belfast Telegraph

Chris Henry: Devoted Cave really has been putting it all on line for Ulster

Thumbs up: Darren Cave after his final home game for Ulster, the win over Connacht
Thumbs up: Darren Cave after his final home game for Ulster, the win over Connacht
Bundee Aki and Rory Best
Chris Henry

By Chris Henry

When it comes to this time of year, the end-of-season party is something of a misnomer. First of all, I can't remember the last time we didn't have the bitter taste of another season without silverware fresh in the mouth so party probably isn't the right word.

Secondly, while people probably think that players are on the first flight to anywhere after the last game of the year, it's not normally the end of the season either.

If you're out of the running for the league at this stage, which we have been in recent seasons, there's still a few weeks of hanging around, training away to keep the boys going on the Ireland tour sharp.

It's a different story this year and when the squad get suited and booted this week it's with their season well and truly alive and Saturday's win over Connacht was certainly something to celebrate before attention switched to the semi-finals.

It was a nervy watch for everyone but I imagine especially so for Rory Best and Darren Cave.

I didn't have the benefit of knowing that my last game for Ulster would be the final time I pulled on the jersey but I can only imagine how it felt for those guys to be stood on the sidelines in the final minutes with no control over whether their Ulster careers were to stop dead there and then.

With a World Cup to come, I'm sure there's plenty more to be written about the Ireland skipper but I've been delighted with how this season has panned out for Cave.

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It's been said before how much Ulster Rugby means to the man and you have seen that in spades in recent weeks. He's obviously done some damage to the knee but he's still out there every week putting it all on the line.

When you think of how many injuries there's been at centre this season, he's had to gut it out in these final weeks but as ever he hasn't let anybody down.

The dream finish, a first piece of silverware and the Ulster appearance record, is still there for him.

I remember when we were first coming through in the team, we made a Heineken Cup final early in our careers and you were in the play-offs year after year.

There were so many missed opportunities but all of a sudden that group was in our mid-30s and we'd still not tasted trophy success. I think for myself personally, being involved with the Ireland Six Nations win certainly softened the blow and I certainly don't lie awake at night thinking about a lack of club medals but it seems like every year we have these stories of trying to send somebody off with a piece of silverware.

For players, and I'm sure Darren and Rory have said the same, you have to be selfish though.

It's not about sending a legend off into the sunset with one final moment of glory, you have to do it for yourself because you can't take for granted that these opportunities are going to come around further down the track.

Next week's semi-final with Glasgow is already a mouth-watering prospect. Saturday was a great result but it was one from which Ulster still have plenty of areas to work on. The line-out was certainly one and no side likes to give up an intercept but there was a lot to like too.

The defence was relentless and it was good to have some of that inter-pro intensity as well as a great atmosphere, even with Bundee Aki playing the pantomime villain.

He can be yappy certainly and he's the sort of player you hate playing against, one that lives on the edge at all times, but when he left the field to all those boos I suspect Ulster supporters were somewhat relieved to see him go off too.

His battle with the opposing centres Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall was worth watching and for me McCloskey was very impressive.

Marshall is a warrior and again he certainly wasn't showing a scrap of rust. He's come back into the side after 10 months out and is looking like he hasn't been away.

Both men will be so key in a fortnight's time.

It will take a much bigger performance to win in Scotstoun but as I've been saying since the narrow loss to Leinster in the Champions Cup quarter-final, Ulster have already showed that they can be a match for anyone when they get everything right.

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