Ulster ace Darren Cave is delighted to return for crunch
Centre set for the biggest game of his life at Munster
Midfielder Darren Cave makes no bones about some of the frustrations he has suffered in the past as an Ulster player.
The twice-capped Irish centre – a nominee for Brian O’Driscoll’s number 13 jersey when finally it becomes available – admits it has not been easy to watch on while other provinces progressed long after Ulster had dropped out of the running for prizes.
“When I first started playing for Ulster, at this stage of the season you had your summer holidays booked. That’s something I don’t miss,” he said.
“It’s brilliant not knowing (when the season is going to end), and just having to go out and win or else you’ll find yourself out of both tournaments.
“I’ve always been jealous of the Munster and Leinster players being in the shop window because of the big games they were playing in.”
That, he feels, always gave rivals for possible international calls a massive advantage.
But now, with Ulster pushing for a place in the RaboDirect PRO12 play-off semi-finals and still involved in the Heineken Cup, Cave finds himself blessed with the same sort of opportunities as those he used to envy others in Leinster and Munster.
And although players always insist that their focus is solely on the next game, Cave is unable to hide the fact that although there are two PRO12 weekends between now and the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, he cannot resist looking ahead to April 8, not least because it gives Ulster players a chance to stake their claims for Irish recognition.
On Munster v Ulster he said: “It will be the biggest game I’ve ever played in and the biggest game a lot of people have ever played in.
“It’s going to be massive and with that comes some pressure. But it also is a massive opportunity, not only for myself but for other players in the Ulster team who I think have to prove themselves to the public down south and to the Irish selectors.”
Friday will mark 10 weeks on the sidelines after picking up a slow-to-heal foot injury in Ulster’s Ravenhill rout of Leicester Tigers. While that, too, has been frustrating, Cave appreciates the fact that the timing could have been even more damaging.
“There’s no doubt that from an Ireland point of view it was bad timing,” he said. “But the other way of looking at it is that from an Ulster point of view it was probably quite good timing.
“I ended up missing five games – one of them was a massive game (Clermont) – but at another stage of the season, to not play for 10 weeks could have seen me miss nine or 10.
“It wasn’t ideal from an international point of view but for Ulster it was quite good timing because I’m back now, I’m raring to go and there’s plenty to play for.”
Explaining the nature of the injury and how it came about he added: “It was a badly sprained foot. I was on my hunkers and all the body weight was pushed through my foot.
“It was very sore but nothing was broken and nothing was torn. I nearly made the Edinburgh game but because there was two weeks off after that it was left, so now it’s feeling good.”
His return to action “at the business end of the season” means he re-enters at a time when every game is of cup final proportions. The next half-dozen fixtures will define Ulster’s season.
“At the minute we’ve six games left – and hopefully it’s more than six. They’re six big games,” said Cave.
“The next two weeks (Treviso away, Aironi at home) are about trying to get wins and finely tune the team. From a personal perspective it’s about trying to get some good performances and making sure I’m picked.
“It’s a couple of opportunities to try to get the match fitness up; you can only get match fitness from playing so I’m just looking forward to doing that.”
Admitting that that 23-12 home defeat by Treviso had been “something we weren’t expecting”, Cave said: “We’re a better team for that now and we definitely owe them one.
“And hopefully they know that, too, because we’re coming to get them.”