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Darren Cave signs off still shining as one of Ulster's brightest ever stars



Goodbye: Darren Cave is to retire at the end of the season after a distinguished career with Ulster and Ireland

Goodbye: Darren Cave is to retire at the end of the season after a distinguished career with Ulster and Ireland

Goodbye: Darren Cave is to retire at the end of the season after a distinguished career with Ulster and Ireland

Well, it had to end sometime and now will do so before the 'one more year' campaign really reached full velocity.

And yet it still is rather surprising that Darren Cave is actually going, announcing that he will retire when this season's curtain falls and making this known just ahead of his 32nd birthday which falls tomorrow.

The surprise factor is that this is happening when he seems to be performing well and, as such, seemingly still offering something to either Ulster or potentially another club across the water.

His performance last Saturday at the Aviva Stadium provided ample evidence that the body and mind are clearly still willing. But, then again, maybe, as such, this is indeed the perfect time to go.

Last weekend, his huge experience, leadership and organisational abilities when it comes to defence, were notably high profile with Cave racing up out of the line to shut Leinster's wide game down as well as bringing blue-shirted players to ground.

He left after just over an hour of doing this, blood-spattered and doubtless battered for his efforts - both his and Stuart McCloskey's combined tackle count came close to the 30 mark - and yet he had kept a certain Garry Ringrose far quieter than the Ireland star would have hoped.

That will have pleased him, particularly as Cave has always felt that just 11 international caps - trying to break through with Brian O'Driscoll still around didn't exactly help and then, of course, he had to watch the rise of Robbie Henshaw - wasn't a great return for a player who made his first Ireland appearance against Canada back in 2009.

And that first cap came just two years after the Holywood native had been part of a Grand Slam when playing alongside Keith Earls and Sean O'Brien for the national side's U20s.

He might have thought then that his combination of pace, always with an eye to scoring or setting tries up for others, and defensive skill would have ensured much more and meaningful exposure at the top level.

But Cave could yet leave Ulster, and the game, by becoming the province's most capped player. He currently sits on 225 appearances which is four back from record holder Andrew Trimble. Close enough to have a pop at but, then again, time is running out.

Admittedly, he will have to feature in five games to surpass Trimble with a maximum of six potentially available (three regulation season and three knockout clashes) should Ulster make it all the way to the PRO14 final.

Not only is there no guarantee of that scenario unfolding but Cave, presuming he is fit, may not feature in all the games either though that scenario would certainly be cruel on him should he not, at the very least, make the bench for both the closing stages of the season and the last weeks of his career.

Hardly a priority for Cave even though it would be a nice way to finish. More fitting would be walking away from Ulster with a much-coveted winners' medal should they make it all the way to the PRO14 final and then, finally, claim a trophy.

But very few get to finish on a high and the overall experience in his career will have prepared him to not expect any dream finish.

One team-mate who knows all about leaving, though rather earlier than had been hoped earlier this season due to injury, is Chris Henry who paid tribute to his former colleague.

"It's sad but I think the fact he's still in charge of the situation will bring him some relief," said Henry.

"He was a huge part of that team whenever we were really motoring and we wouldn't have got to those knockout situations without his input. He's had a massive part in this season and has been outstanding."

Cave's biggest stage was at Twickenham in 2012 which also turned out to be one of the most shattering as Leinster torched Ulster's Heineken Cup ambitions with ease. Always articulate, and often opinionated, his 'my face doesn't fit' comment the following year, regarding his lack of opportunities for Ireland, certainly broke ranks from the usual non-commital comments players would often make but ably demonstrated Cave's deep frustration and burning ambition.

It didn't halt him from adding comment regardless of the backdrop, his willingness to stop and give an interview in the aftermath of Ulster's agonising PRO12 semi-final defeat at Glasgow in 2015, when no other player felt able to do so, being a case in point.

He plugged away at Ulster - his hat-trick of tries against Leicester in January 2015 being an obvious highlight - and then got to the World Cup that autumn.

In an open letter announcing his retirement Cave paid tribute to all those he worked with as well as, of course, his family.

"Whilst I'm proud of my achievements, more than anything else I'm grateful that my family sacrificed so much to let me pursue this crazy dream that I could play for Ulster and Ireland."

He also paid tribute to his wife Helen who is expecting their first baby in July.

And to the supporters he said: "Over the last 13 years the lows have been low, but the highs have been higher, and most importantly ... you've always been there for me and the team."

It's been quite a journey, but it's not over yet.

Cave factfile

Name: Darren Cave

Born: Holywood (5/4/1987)

Education: Sullivan Upper

Age: 31

Position: Centre

Ulster appearances: 225, debut 2007

Tries: 45

Ireland caps: 11, debut 2009

Tries: 2

Ireland U20s Grand Slam winner 2007.

Member of Ireland World Cup squad 2015

Belfast Telegraph