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Determined Darren Cave ready to fight for his Ulster shirt

It was just one of those things. Wrong place, wrong time and all that. The impact of the early tackle, in last December's game with Edinburgh, left Darren Cave with no option but to leave the field and begin fretting at the length of time he would be out and just how well Luke Marshall might do with a clear run at 13.

As it happened, a damaged AC joint sidelined Cave for seven weeks, which proved more than enough for Marshall to notably stake his claim at outside centre alongside rising star Stuart McCloskey.

And, while Cave looked on, Marshall and McCloskey's partnership blossomed to such an extent that both were rewarded with places in Joe Schmidt's Six Nations squad while Cave (pictured on Ireland duty), with no recent game-time behind him, missed the cut after having made last autumn's World Cup.

Yes, the timing of this particular injury could hardly have been worse for Cave regarding his constant two-pronged quest to continue thriving in Ulster's ultra-competitive midfield with its spin-off of trying to pick up more Ireland caps.

And, just to add to it all, the 28-year-old is now ready to make his comeback just as a certain Jared Payne is back while Stuart Olding is also good to go.

Seven weeks out has left him with huge ground to make up. Still, the proximity of the Six Nations may actually work in Cave's favour as some combination of McCloskey, Payne and Marshall may be spending considerably less time around the Kingspan.

Cave, of course, was part of a pretty horrible casualty list which, from that one PRO12 game with Edinburgh, took out Iain Henderson, Dan Tuohy and Peter Nelson but the fact that he is the first one to get back has hardly helped make the time away any easier.

"The main thing I learned when I was out was I'm not a good watcher," says the player in line to make his 167th appearance for Ulster in tomorrow's essential European five-pointer when they host Oyonnax in their final pool outing.

"Watching the Toulouse games I felt very left out as the team was going well and then the games where we didn't quite get the results, as with Munster and Saracens, I felt sorry for the guys and helpless."

Still, Cave has been here before and even managed to reinvent himself as an inside centre when Payne became Ireland's clear number one choice at 13.

It's trickier now though, what with McCloskey making the number 12 his own and Cave, realistically, knows he might be largely slugging it out for a regular start back at 13 with Marshall, Payne and even Olding all being powerful rivals - though the latter two can, at least, also be deployed in other positions.

"Yes, the timing was frustrating," Cave admits.

"I get injured and then the Toulouse games go as well as possible. The team was brilliant, the ball was being flung from side to side and the centres then can't stop scoring.

"And you're sitting in the stand saying 'remember me?'

"But you just look after what you can and don't worry about what everyone else is doing," says the 11-times capped Ireland player who knows he will now have to fight tooth and nail for an Ulster starting spot.

"I wouldn't say I'm starting from scratch but I would say I want to go out to try and help the team win and make sure I get selected the next week," Cave adds.

And he, rightly, throws out a reminder that he has met the intensity of the midfield competition before and intends to do so again.

"When Jared started playing centre I think that brought on and raised my game (Cave switched to 12) and you do want healthy competition," he says.

A repeat of last season's closing pool game in Europe would really be the perfect way to relaunch himself when Cave helped end Ulster's downbeat campaign on something of an upslope by scoring a hat-trick of tries in the tanking of Leicester Tigers at the Kingspan.

But there is little point in basking in past glory regarding the job now at hand in making Europe's last eight as one of three best runners-up with Cave more than likely to be benched for tomorrow.

"Seventeen points (from a non-bonus point win) isn't going to be enough and I don't even know if 18 will do it, but we'll look after the small things and hope we get a good result," he adds.

"It's a tough game," he says of the need to run up a big score against the French and hope other results go Ulster's way.

"But then it's not like there are many easy games to ease yourself back in when you've had a bit of a dodgy shoulder," he says smiling.

Time to go and prove himself again.

Champions Cup: Kingspan Stadium, Sat, (1.00pm)



Belfast Telegraph