| 2.1°C Belfast

Ulster v Munster: Bruised but unbowed Darren Cave is up for another scrap


Looking ahead: Darren Cave sports a stitched face after a coming together with team-mate Michael Heaney in training

Looking ahead: Darren Cave sports a stitched face after a coming together with team-mate Michael Heaney in training

?INPHO/Presseye/William Cherry

Looking ahead: Darren Cave sports a stitched face after a coming together with team-mate Michael Heaney in training

The blow got him right between the eyes and has, unsurprisingly, led to some rather noticeable stitching. The attention-grabbing wound requires an explanation and Darren Cave readily supplies the answer as he gears towards this afternoon's clash with Munster at the Kingspan Stadium (2.40pm).

Cave points out that he shipped the damage on the training ground after coming off second best with soon to depart scrum-half Michael Heaney, or as the in-form centre describes him, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, "that noted hard-man of Ulster Rugby".

His upbeat mood reflects what has been seen on the pitch this season with the 28-year-old having, so far, scored eight tries - his most prolific return - and secured himself the number 12 shirt after being shunted aside by Jared Payne's ascension to outside centre.

And this is no mean feat as his demise in the starting side was being touted as with Payne a bolted-on selection at 13, when released to play by Ireland, it has meant that Cave has had to scrap it out at inside centre against Stuart Olding and Stuart McCloskey, as well as Luke Marshall, just to get a game in midfield.

His cause has been aided by the injury profile which has taken out Olding, McCloskey and Marshall at various times, with the latter two also serving time away through their respective bans, but there is also no doubt that Cave has reacted to his situation by playing some of the best rugby he has produced since making his debut back in season 2006-7.

"I have been very happy with how this season has gone. I think I've played 24 or 25 games and hopefully there will be four more," says Cave, who will make his 159th Ulster appearance this afternoon.

He has stepped up to the plate when the pressure is on, using his guile and experience to bring something extra to inside centre. The intensity of competition has only stoked his desire to stay in the starting side while the flow of tries has also helped in ensuring he remains uppermost in Neil Doak's mind.

"It helps everyone," is all he will say about the intensity of battling to keep ahead of his rivals at inside centre with both powerful runners McCloskey and Marshall available again.

"It wasn't that long ago that both Craig (Gilroy) and myself were on the bench and being left out. But fast forward a few months and we now have over 20 tries between us, though granted he has got more than half of them," says Cave with a grin, though the league's most deadly finisher Gilroy misses out today thanks to a hamstring injury.

"I have scored eight tries this year and that is the highest I've ever got," says Cave, showing that he has definitely earned his keep.

"But I would always take stock and make sure I'm not taking it for granted."

Now it's really all about keeping Ulster's winning run going for what they hope is another four games which, if achieved, will bring the PRO12 trophy to the Kingspan cabinet.

And first on the list to be dealt with are Munster. Even though Anthony Foley's side have a pretty decent away record, Ulster are still fancied to win an 11th straight league outing at home.

"I think the Ulster team from a few years ago that wasn't as strong didn't enjoy being favourites," he says. "Now I think we relish it.

"I'd be surprised if we're ever not the bookies' favourites to win at home. That doesn't mean the side coming to play us aren't good, it means when we get our stuff right at home we are very hard to beat and the opposition know that as well.

"We are pretty determined to do everything we can to make sure that there is not a final at the Kingspan Stadium minus Ulster."

Two more wins - against Munster and then at current league leaders Glasgow - should bring Ulster their elusive prize of a home semi-final, but the bigger picture is not uppermost in Cave's mind with today's inter-provincial battle to be dealt with first.

"There is every chance that winning one of our two remaining games won't be enough to get us a home semi-final," says Cave.

"The safest thing to do is not to worry about what everyone else is doing," he adds of the permutations of how the top four will end up looking.

"You could lose sleep thinking about the need for bonus points this weekend, but we are just going to try and win the match ahead of us and then take it into next week."

Hopefully, the only way is up.

Belfast Telegraph