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Stars can find Ulster Rugby's emotional rollercoaster hard to handle, admits Darren Cave


Positive message: Former Ulster and Ireland player and campaign ambassador for Tackle Your Feelings Darren Cave
Positive message: Former Ulster and Ireland player and campaign ambassador for Tackle Your Feelings Darren Cave
Darren Cave with Rory Best on their final appearance for Ulster
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

On this date four years ago, Darren Cave went to bed buzzing with excitement, knowing the next day would bring his World Cup debut against Romania in Wembley.

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His glee at making it to the tournament for the first time had been evident in the squad's pen pics, his beaming face a stark contrast to the usual stern nightclub bouncer impressions favoured by players.

Taking part in the global showpiece will have felt like a dream come true.

As is so often the case, the reality was different, another example of the outrageous highs and lows produced by a life in professional sport.

Even with injuries to the likes of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw, that game against the Romanians would be his only involvement in the tournament and indeed his last ever cap for Ireland, the selection calls just never breaking his way.

These are the things he doesn't miss about rugby. Having decided to hang his boots up at the end of last season, Ulster's most-capped player has recently taken up a job in the foreign exchange, juggling a career change with fatherhood after he and wife Helen became parents for the first time back in July.

Retirement was a decision he made on his own terms, walking away at the age of 32 rather than clinging on through fading skills, an acknowledgement in part that the sport is more of a mental grind than those on the outside will realise.

"When I'm working 9-5 until I'm 65, I don't want to be thinking about how class it was on a Friday night to be playing for Ulster," he said, launching Rugby Players Ireland's latest Tackle Your Feelings app, a campaign for which he is an ambassador.

"Rugby was unbelievable, it's all I wanted to be growing up, but now I'll be thinking about all those other things that go along with it, the down times.

"There were times when I think I should have played for someone else because Ulster meant too much to me.

"That hat-trick against Leicester, when I see footage of that, I still can't describe that feeling, I can't describe how it is when you know you're going to score, just that split second.

"But it works both ways, there were times when we lost and I was just so down. You thought about going to France, playing a few games and win or lose getting a pay cheque at the end of the month.

"There were times when that could have been preferable because I was thinking I can't handle the rollercoaster.

"And when I look at my career, there were probably more lows than most. We've had a massive trial that sent shockwaves through the country, we tragically lost a team-mate in Nevin Spence, I played in Ulster's record defeat. It's gutting. I won't miss that part. I don't know how I dealt with it."

Or indeed with the constant critique of his professional performance.

When Cave began his career at Ulster some 13 years ago, it would largely be directed only from the terraces at Ravenhill, part of sport that the Holywood man admits is never easy to take.

"Whenever I was playing all the tickets that you started getting for family, they're all in the same block," Cave said.

"My dad is as big a fan as anyone, so say if Paddy Wallace knocked the ball on or whatever, you'd hear him going, 'Aw, for flip sake Paddy'.

"I had to remind him that people could be saying that about me and how it would make him feel. But that's what it is, my wife isn't a big rugby fan but I even had to warn her before she started going that she might hear something she didn't want to.

"But, now, social media has changed everything in a big way.

"For anyone in the public eye, it's hard to get away from people who think that you're well known and that makes you fair game. They say things about you or even to you that they'd never say to your face.

"It's the same if you're an Irish international or starting a new school, it's just tough to deal with.

"There were times playing for Ireland when I thought that there were certain sections of the public and certain sections of the media thought other players were more deserving to be there but it was always really important for me that the Ulster fans were always behind me and that was incredibly comforting.

"If there's players that aren't accepted in the same way it can be really difficult.

"A lot of the guys playing for Ulster grew up as fans, it means so much to them. Opinions are fine but message boards, social media, the Ulster Rugby Facebook, some of the stuff that's written on there, it's tough to hear."

Dipping his toes in punditry waters is another avenue he is exploring, again a world where the likes of Twitter can be an eye-opening experience.

It was after the Ireland loss to England in Twickenham that Cave took to the platform in an effort to explain the systemic defensive frailties that left Jacob Stockdale exposed on the wing.

One user responded that his explanation was too technical and continued to blame Stockdale regardless.

"Yeah, that was a funny one," he laughed.

"I think people want scapegoats, they don't want technical. They want 'Jacob is terrible, Rory Best shouldn't be the captain', there's an appetite to find someone to blame rather than what's actually happening. It's very hard to articulate in 240 characters.

"And obviously everyone's entitled to an opinion and nobody's is more important than anyone else's but I do wonder sometimes why people don't think, regardless of what people thought of me as a player, that I probably defended about 2,500 set-pieces and you're a 62-year-old accountant from Galway.

"But it's the way we are now, the more people hear the opposing argument they become more entrenched in their own. That goes for whether Stuart McCloskey should be in the Ireland squad, or Brexit."

Rugby Players Ireland and Zurich have relaunched the Tackle Your Feelings mental wellbeing app and website as part of a new phase of the campaign: #ImTakingControl. Former Ulster and Ireland Rugby Player and campaign ambassador Darren Cave was on hand to lend his support at the relaunch of and the TYF app, which is free to download through the Apple and Google Play App stores.

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