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No matter the Ulster party line, the truth is they have to beat teams like Zebre: Darren Cave

Former star expecting Kingspan men to build on perfect start


Full steam ahead: Ulster celebrate their victory over Glasgow, a fifth win out of five to begin the season

Full steam ahead: Ulster celebrate their victory over Glasgow, a fifth win out of five to begin the season

�INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Full steam ahead: Ulster celebrate their victory over Glasgow, a fifth win out of five to begin the season

In his role as a Premier Sports pundit in times of otherwise empty stadiums, few have had the opportunity to see as much of Ulster's winning start to the season up close as their former star centre Darren Cave.

Dan McFarland's men have banked five wins from five games played so far while taking a maximum of 15 points from the 15 available at Kingspan Stadium, their latest victory a convincing 40-12 triumph over Glasgow on Monday night.

While still trailing Leinster at the top of Conference A by two points, a chasm of 14 has already developed between the northern province and third-placed Ospreys a little over a month into the campaign.

Unbeaten at home since October 2018, and with eight more games at Kingspan Stadium remaining, it already feels a tall order for any of the chasing pack to deny them at least the right to host a quarter-final should they maintain their current home form.

Meanwhile, having already banked eight hard-earned points from trips to Ospreys and Cardiff to date, the continuation of improved away form will be the key to keeping pace with a Leinster side again sweeping aside all before them.

"Ulster will win nearly all, if not all, of the home games they have this season," said Cave of a league table that is already taking on a wholly familiar shape.

"We all know that and we know they'll pick up plenty of bonus points along the way too.

"That's 44 points, potentially more, just from your home games. So right now, to be sitting with eight points from those two trips to Wales, to add that onto the 44 points from the Kingspan, it sounds like a silly thing to say but they've actually got one foot in the play-offs already.

"It's those games on the road that are going to decide whether at the end of the season you're scrambling to get into the quarter-finals or sitting pretty with a home quarter-final wrapped up and resting players for the so-called business end."


Impressive stuff: Darren Cave, now a pundit, has seen Ulster up close

Impressive stuff: Darren Cave, now a pundit, has seen Ulster up close

�INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Impressive stuff: Darren Cave, now a pundit, has seen Ulster up close

Ulster's latest away trip brings them to Italy to face Zebre on Monday night, with former Irish international Michael Bradley's side buoyed by beating Ospreys last time they were at the Stadio Lanfranchi. Among Cave's record 229 Ulster outings were numerous trips to Parma, including their first loss there in 2014.

"They hadn't won that many at that stage and you'd walk in and there was a picture from each of their home wins up like a wall of shame," he recalled.

"On the way in, you'd be looking at it and thinking, 'That's what we're playing for, that's what's at stake', trying to avoid being on the wall. Well, we're on the wall now."

Indeed, they've lost there once more since, Cave's late try all that rescued a losing bonus point from a 2017 trip that Ulster went into, as now, off the back of an impressive start to a campaign.

Cave, though, believes that these are just the kind of games Ulster must expect to win if they are to maintain their current rate of progression.

"I'm not saying it's going to be easy but there's no reason why Ulster shouldn't be going over and winning," he added.

"I've done it every year, being put out there and talking up the opposition.

"The Ulster players will be putting out every party line there is, they'll be saying that 'Zebre aren't the team they used to be', that 'Michael Bradley has done a great job'.

"Now I'm retired, I can tell you the truth - if you want to win trophies, you have to win games like that."

While no longer having to echo such sentiment is certainly one benefit of hanging up the boots, Cave is enjoying staying close to the game through his punditry work where, perhaps unsurprisingly given his defensive reputation as a player, he has shown a real knack for recognising and reading plays as they're in progress.

"It's been great to be involved in the Premier Sports coverage since the end of last season," he says. "It's something I'm really enjoying, just in that it keeps you involved and close to the game. 

"It's tough that we have empty grounds right now and supporters can't watch in person, but from a TV perspective but we're trying to keep the energy up in the coverage and have some great guys involved like Fez (Stephen Ferris) Big Jim (Hamilton), Shanks (Tom Shanklin) to name a few, it's been good fun.

"I think there are parts that are easier given that I'm not far out of it.

"The game changes quickly obviously but there are lots of triggers, ones that I would have used defensively, that you can still see especially in commentary when you're high up, and that you can then recognise as a certain play or something that you've seen from an opposition before.

"There might be a play off a line-out that ends up with a centre carrying up the middle, and you could watch that and think, 'right a big centre getting a carry, that makes sense, that's what they do.'

"But if you look closer, you can tell where the ball is going next, in this instance that it's coming back because it's a trend right across rugby.

"What you might see is the blindside wing and the other centre clearing the breakdown, then the forwards come off lineout and round the corner the same way, away from the line-out. The three backs in the first ruck, they've reloaded and they're ready for when the play comes back. If it was going the same way, if it wasn't coming back, you'd see the centre by himself or maybe one other back but there's no logical reason for three backs in there, other than the balls coming back to them and that's how you know what's coming.

"When I was playing, because it is common in rugby, that sort of thing was something that from a defensive point of view I would use as a good trigger to judge how many of our forwards had to fold to the open-side or the blide-side.

"Those are things you recognise just from all those training sessions and all those games so that's what you're trying to bring."

Darren Cave is part of the Premier Sports commentary team. The home of the Guinness PRO14 with every game live, every weekend, rugby fans can subscribe on Sky or the Premier Sports Player. Visit www.premiersports.com to sign up to see all the live action.

Belfast Telegraph