Cave ruled out of Le Crunch and also Six Nations squad
Ulster have been rocked by a huge blow ahead of Saturday’s Heineken Cup qualification showdown with Clermont Auvergne (kick-off 3.40 and live on Sky) as centre Darren Cave has been ruled out of action for up to six weeks.
The 24-year-old picked up a ligament injury in his foot in the second half of last Friday’s tub-thumping 41-7 win over Leicester Tigers and an MRI scan on Monday revealed the extent of the damage which is likely to keep him out of action until the end of next month.
While Ulster seek to reshuffle their options at outside centre, Cave will have to come to terms with what is a cruel setback as he not only misses out on Saturday afternoon’s crunch European clash to settle who wins Pool Four, and gains automatic entry to the last eight, but he will now also not be part of Declan Kidney’s expanded squad for the Six Nations which was due to be announced today.
Cave had been in great form for Ulster and with Brian O’Driscoll sitting out the Six Nations, the two-times Ireland-capped centre had looked to be a possible challenger, behind front-runners Fergus McFadden and Keith Earls, for the vacant Ireland number 13 shirt.
He had looked a certainty to be in the Irish Wolfhounds side which is due to take on England Saxons in Exeter on January 28 but will now play no part in what had been a marvellous opportunity to further his cause.
Cave had missed a large chunk of last season with a hamstring injury but was back to his best this term and had been one of Ulster’s key performers in their recent great run of form.
While Cave’s injury is a major setback for Brian McLaughlin’s preparations the coach is, nevertheless, fortunate that he has significant cover at centre.
Nevin Spence would appear to be the most likely option, as the 21-year-old has now returned to fitness after an ankle problem picked up in the European bonus point win at Aironi in December, but McLaughlin could also deploy the hard-running Ian Whitten in midfield alongside Paddy Wallace.
Alternatively, McLaughlin could opt for Stefan Terblanche, or even bring Andrew Trimble into the midfield mix in what will be a hugely significant tussle against the power of seasoned France international Aurelien Rougerie and Wesley Fofana.
On a more positive note for Ulster, Pedrie Wannenburg, who also limped out of last Friday’s action after one of his most memorable games in an Ulster shirt, is said to be fine, despite going into the Ravenhill match with an ankle problem, and will be available for the trip to France.
The size of Ulster’s task on Saturday is fairly monumental as Clermont have gone 36 games unbeaten at Stade Marcel Michelin while Ulster have never actually won a European game on French soil.
The closest Ulster have come was back in 2000 when they managed a 35-35 draw at Toulouse in a game that saw both current director of rugby David Humphreys and defensive coach Jonny Bell in the starting line up.
But, regardless of Saturday’s outcome, they are at least guaranteed more European action through qualification for the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals, should they ultimately not make it through to the Heineken Cup’s last eight.
Meanwhile, winger Craig Gilroy believes that Ulster can put in a huge performance on Saturday to get what they need to secure back-to-back quarter-final qualification.
The 20-year-old, who scored against the Tigers, said: “The win definitely gives us belief and shows that we can beat any team in the competition.
“So we have to take the positives and try and replicate those in France.We proved we can beat them when we won the round one match back in November.
“Obviously we had home advantage on that occasion, but we beat them nevertheless and we know we can beat them home and away and that’s what we’ll be looking to do.”