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Cave is glad he'll bow out playing well and on his own terms

 

Big finale: Ulster’s Darren Cave is ready for the final chapter of his career
Big finale: Ulster’s Darren Cave is ready for the final chapter of his career
Darren Cave with former England ace Phil Vickery at House of Fraser in Belfast
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

If captaining the side against Leinster today does prove to be his Ulster farewell, Darren Cave admits that the logic may seem slightly perverse.

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His decision to retire at season's end came only after providing what was arguably his best performance of the campaign in what was undoubtedly the side's biggest game in years.

As the final whistle went at Dublin's Aviva Stadium, with Leinster emerging victorious from a to-and-fro Champions Cup quarter-final that captivated from start to finish, it seems it also signalled the end of the career of one of Ulster Rugby's favourite sons.

Even in defeat, Cave's performance was enough to see the chorus calling for the fan favourite to extend his playing days once again grow into a cacophony, his corralling of the world-class Garry Ringrose proof that there remains plenty of life in the comparatively old dog yet.

Instead, it brought the 32-year-old a degree of closure sufficient to see him hang up the boots.

"My over-riding emotion at the end was that I was never going to play in Europe again," he said this week at an event hosted by House of Fraser Belfast and Raging Bull Clothing.

"When I was younger, I always thought I'd play as long as I can. But as I got older, the more that changed. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, 'Why go on and become a worse rugby player as my body deteriorates? Why have young guys breathing down my neck and not get selected? Why go out with a bad taste in my mouth?'

"Instead, now I'm playing regularly. It's maybe bizarre logic but as soon as that game was over, I thought, 'Yeah, that's me'.

"After the game, I was sure. I don't know why but it was almost closure in regards to my ability to perform at that level. I haven't had many opportunities at that level since the World Cup really but I've always wholeheartedly believed in my ability to play there. After Leinster, I think I proved something to a lot of people and that sort of made me think, 'You know what? It's time to go'."

That closure was almost robbed from him. In the days leading up to the game, Cave feared that once again he'd be denied his place on the big stage, this time through injury.

As the week of the game began, the 11-times-capped centre was no guarantee to play, a rib injury he sustained against the Kings severe enough that the province flew back the yet to debut Stewart Moore from the 'A' side's Carra Cup camp in Boston. Ready to play through the pain, he spent the hours before kick-off crossing his fingers that his body wouldn't let him down.

"I was genuinely worried about how I was going to perform," he said. "51,000 people, my home province playing in the rugby capital of the country and I didn't know if my ribs were up to making tackles.

"I was very scared that I would let the team down. I was so nervous, not about my ability but about my condition's impact on that ability. I remember thinking to myself, 'I can't believe I choose to do this'."

His retirement, as well as that of his skipper Rory Best, can be seen as the final curtain call on an era of Ulster Rugby.

They follow Andrew Trimble, Paul Marshall, Tommy Bowe and Chris Henry into retirement, all hanging up their boots over the past 12 months with Roger Wilson beating them to the punch by just one season.

As rugby in the province has changed dramatically over the course of his 12-year career, so too has Cave. When he made his debut in 2007 against the now-defunct Borders, he phoned his father and gushed that, even if it all ended the next day, he'd always be able to call himself an Ulster player. Now, the man who will become a father for the first time this summer stands on the cusp of his 227th Ulster outing.

"A lot of growing up has been done," he said. "I was 20 then, now I'm not a million miles off halfway through my life.

"As you get older, I think you're more appreciative of how many people have helped you on that journey. When you're young, you start with your parents and you think it's their sole purpose in life to taxi you around and help you chase this dream.

"The (number of) people that have helped me is phenomenal. I often think about how circumstantial it all is. I did have a talent and worked hard but there are circumstances too.

"I mention my brother... I genuinely wonder if I had been an only child would I have had the same chances. They say it takes 10,000 hours of prep to be world class - now I wouldn't say wrestling in the garden is purposeful practice, but so many tiny things that are outside of my control have helped. It's sort of that butterfly effect."

Cave has often felt something of an anomaly in professional rugby, not because he has opinions but because he chooses to share them.

A cursory glance across his social media activity reveals discourse on the likes of Stormont, Brexit and everything in between. He's spoken out against bigotry, highlighted the issue of male suicide and even campaigned against over reliance on plastic.

With opinions often free-flowing, it seems sure that the end of his playing days will not be the last we hear of him.

"I'd like to stay involved in media, I think that would be my way to stay involved in rugby," he said.

"Trimby says matchday in the media is the closest thing you can get to matchday as a player so hopefully you'll be seeing me and hearing me plenty."

Match Verdict: Ulster

There's not a team in the PRO14 who can rival Leinster for strength in depth and as such when two teams both throw out understrength line-ups the champions are always likely to look better on paper.

Dan McFarland has selected a team that will not be short on motivation, especially having not beaten Leinster since 2017. There should be enough players needing to make an impression to edge it for the hosts.

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