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Southern Kings clash is as important as European quarter-final for Ulster, says Cave


Having a ball: Ulster’s Darren Cave on attack against Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth earlier this season
Having a ball: Ulster’s Darren Cave on attack against Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth earlier this season
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

The game before the big game.

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Ulster take on Southern Kings at Kingspan Stadium today (5.30pm kick-off) in a contest when the majority in attendance will have their minds on the trip to Dublin for a Champions Cup quarter-final against Leinster in just seven days' time.

When Ulster last played in the last eight of Europe's top competition, Darren Cave was one of only two players from today's matchday 23 to take the field - the other being Rob Herring - and the centre admits it can be a tough balancing act for the squad.

"It is an interesting one," he said. "I think even as a coaching team and a playing group, how do you approach it?

"Do you mention it? Do you not mention it? There is no hiding it, next week is a big game. We have not been at that top table in Europe for five years, that is too many."

The 31-year-old has had plenty of memorable European outings in the white jersey, including a run to the 2012 final, but has warned that there is no margin for error if they are to ensure Champions Cup qualification for next season.

Dan McFarland's side entered this weekend in their conference's third and final automatic qualification place with only four league games remaining.

The fight between themselves, Edinburgh, Scarlets and Treviso is likely to go down to the wire and while it is next week that will capture the imagination, Cave stressed the need for valuable PRO14 points this weekend.

"I think if we are looking at the big picture, this is a club that needs to be playing in the Champions Cup," he said.

"As big as the game is next week, we need points in the league. I have been saying that.

"We got 16 in our last four games thankfully and that has been great, but we need points in the league and we need to be playing Champions Cup rugby (next season). There is no point in getting to the final, or a semi-final or beating Leinster and then sliding down the PRO14 table and not making the Champions Cup for next season.

"That is not what this club is all about. Every game is a big game for the rest of the season."

Especially for Cave who admitted earlier this week he is still weighing up his options when it comes to his playing career beyond this year.

Out of contract in a few months, the man who stands second in the province's all-time appearance list hasn't decided if he wants to pursue another deal. "Listen, I love playing as much as I ever did, probably more than I did because I do not take it for granted as much," he said.

"There was probably a time in the middle of my career where I thought I was going to be playing forever. I am not sure how close the end is right now but I would be surprised if it was in five years.

"Like there are times when in the Dragons or Zebre changing room after the games (recently) when you think 'why would I ever walk away from this?'

"I always presumed I would play until I was 35 or 36 and I would retire injured or just when I could not physically hack it any more.

"I suppose I have changed my tune a little bit on that, but I have not fully made a decision.

"But there are times when you are like 'how could I ever give that up?' But equally there are days when you miss out on a selection or you pick up an injury and you swing the other way, you think you know after 13 years it might be time to hang the bat up and dander off.

"I enjoy it more than I ever did. There are other aspects like contact training that maybe I do not enjoy as much as I ever did, although I am not sure that I ever enjoyed it, but playing I do not ever struggle to get up for it, particularly at home."

Cave has featured in the last six league games and believes the squad can take real pride in how they have recovered from dispiriting festive interpros to reclaim control of their PRO14 destiny, especially in the absence of their Six Nations stars, of whom only John Cooney returns to the matchday squad

"We've 16 points from our four games," he said. "That's probably not too far off a third of our total points for the season in the PRO14, so this group without our internationals can be really proud of that and it's something we will be looking to add to this week."

Despite the continued absence of those internationals, Ulster are boosted by the return to action of Marcell Coetzee who starts a game for the first time in two months after hamstring trouble.

Loosehead Andy Warwick, lock Ian Nagle and back row Matty Rea all also come into the side that beat Dragons last time out, with Dave Shanahan and Cooney also switching starter and bench roles.

While Cave is relied upon to show some veteran leadership in weeks such as this, he has enjoyed playing with the side's raft of young players in recent weeks, including the likes of Rob Lyttle and Rob Baloucoune who are again on the wings.

"For me it's something that I enjoy," he said.

"Young guys bring so much enthusiasm and speed. I put something on social media as a joke about the pace we had in the Zebre game with Rob and Rob on the edge and me in the centre!

"It probably suits them having me (for experience) but it's vice versa as well. For me it's great to have guys that I can get the ball in their hands and then try for second touches or create a bit of space for them and watch when they get half a yard and finish off.

"If I'm able to help them positionally with a few pictures, then that's great but I love playing with those guys as well.

Match Verdict: Ulster

While there's none of their recent Irish internationals in the starting line-up, Ulster are significantly boosted by the return of Marcell Coetzee. The South African plays for the first time in two months after a hamstring injury and should power his side to a relatively straightforward victory over opponents who are notoriously poor travellers. Anything less than a comfortable bonus point would be a surprise.

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