Belfast Telegraph

Darren all set to kick Ulster into higher gear

By Michael Sadlier

Outside, kicking practice is in full swing with a gaggle of players all having a go at dissecting the posts.

Inside, though, things are slightly less comfortable as those occupying the room, which sits right at the edge of the training pitch, are feeling a touch unsettled as balls rain down on the balcony roof and then occasionally smack against the large windows which, thankfully, prove capable of resisting the aerial attack.

At one point the door which leads out onto the pitch is briefly, and rather unwisely, opened and a ball comes flying into the room forcing some to consider scurrying for cover.

If Ulster didn’t have a season-defining game tomorrow night to try and book their place in the Magners League semi-finals you’d swear that this was all part of some end-of-term prank designed to scare the living daylights out of those who have waved microphones in the players’ faces since last August.

But, of course, it’s anything but and things are deadly serious as the squad approach the task of having to visit the Dragons on a mission to dig out their third win on Welsh soil this season, regardless of the fact that a losing bonus point will be enough to see them make the last four.

It’s gone right to the wire for third-placed Ulster as they go into the last round of regulation games hoping that the outcome of Friday’s clash will not prove to be their final game of the season; a situation which could still happen if they lose and fail to nab that bonus point.

The door opens and, instead of a ball landing in the room, a smiling Darren Cave enters to safely lean against the window — by this time there appears to have been a cessation of kicking action — and chew the fat regarding the to Rodney Parade.

The 24-year-old centre is understandably animated about the challenge as, after having missed most of the season due to injury, he has made it back to full fitness at an opportune time.

Indeed he exploded back onto the scene, a fortnight ago, with an enormously impressive outing against Connacht in the wake of Paddy Wallace’s season-ending thumb fracture.

His attacking play was straight out of the top drawer, as was seen with the offload for Rory Best’s opening try and the line he took for his own late effort, while his defensive effort — a tackle on Fionn Carr prevented a probable length-of-the-field Connacht score — gave Ulster an added freshness and impetus in midfield.

“Against Connacht it was the first time I’d played 80 minutes since the first weekend in October, so I’d spent a lot of time watching, and to get out there and do that just meant I felt a lot more confident about myself,” he said.

“My hamstring is fine, though after the game I was very tired. But I enjoyed a few days that we had off and now we’re all guns blazing for Friday,” the twice-capped Ireland player added.

The break in the sequence of games was a little bit frustrating but Cave used the downtime to play a bit of golf. One round was in the company of some of the South African contingent in the squad, and a buggy was also hired so that, as he put it, “I didn’t tire myself out too much.”

Ulster will certainly need him firing on all cylinders on Friday evening and his enforced break from the game — prior to the Connacht game he had only managed a recent try-scoring cameo off the bench against the Dragons at Ravenhill and then another substitute appearance against Leinster since injury struck last autumn — has allowed him to bring extra enthusiasm to the training ground at a time when it is most needed.

“For me I’m trying to bring as much energy as possible to training as I’ve hardly played all season and the other guys are tired at this stage as they’ve physically been through a lot,” Cave said.

Even so, the pressure is building and Cave’s experience — the Connacht game was his 57th appearance for Ulster — will be invaluable as the squad face a Dragons side that did a job on play-off-chasing Cardiff Blues last Friday at Rodney Parade.

“I think I’ve played them six times and only ever beaten them once so they’re a bit of a bogey team for us,” Cave explained.

“This game is massively important. I think it would be ridiculously disappointing to think that our season could be over on Friday night when you think that a month ago we were aiming for these semi-finals and the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup.

“It’s in our hands. We’re going out to win and the bottom line is that if we win we’re in. Home or away it doesn’t matter, the next step is just getting there.”

The goal is tantalisingly within reach.


Ulster's exciting centre prospect Nevin Spence has been voted Irish rugby’s Young Player of 2010/11 by his fellow-professionals.

Spence, who turned 21 last month, picked up the Nature Valley-sponsored award at the Irish Rugby Union Players’ Association Player of the Year ceremony last night in Dublin.

Having played three times for Ulster late on in the 2009/10 campaign, this season has seen Spence make the number 13 jersey his own, witness 22 appearances.

Leinster’s Fijian Isa Nacewa landed the ninth Bord Gáis Energy IRUPA Players’ Player of the Year, becoming the first overseas player to win the top accolade.

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