Cave strives for a fresh opening at centre
Over five years have passed since he was part of Ireland’s Under-20 Grand Slam and Churchill Cup teams, and it’s been four seasons since a breakthrough campaign with Ulster prompted Matt Williams to declare him the heir apparent to some bloke called O’Driscoll and also earned him two caps on the 2009 tour to America.
Hence, of all the relatively untried players given a rare chance in green on home soil on Saturday, none will be straining at a longer leash than Darren Cave.
Keith Earls was a team-mate on that under-20s team, on the wing, and in the Churchill Cup, at inside centre, since when he’s gone on to win 32 caps, whereas Cave added a third in New Zealand.
Like anyone who comes into contact with Earls, Cave both likes him as a person and admires him as a player even if, as he once joked, he’d prefer if Earls hadn’t decided on becoming an outside centre.
This has not sowed seeds of doubt in his mind, even if it has been hard at times. “You can definitely be jealous of someone and be happy for them at the same time. I’m a similar age to Keith Earls and Cian Healy and I see them now and they’ve got 30 caps or whatever and I think ‘flip’. I’m delighted for them but I’m not going to lie and say I’d rather be on three than 30.
“At the same time I look at Chris Henry last weekend who’s three years older than me and who’s now on three caps. His chance was long overdue and he took his chance and that really gives me inspiration, that even if I’m still waiting for another three years that hopefully when I get in I can take my chance like he did last week.”
The speculation as to the make-up of Saturday’s line-up has been more feverish within the squad than usual. There have been “a few good signs in training” he confirms, and even being hauled up in front of the media is an indication he will be starting in Thomond Park.
While this season has seen him continue his good form of last season, Cave admits to being slightly amused by the speculation that Tommy Bowe would be converted to outside centre upon his return to Ulster.
“Myself and Paddy Wallace were looking at each other, thinking ‘what have we done wrong?’ We played in a lot of big games last year for Ulster, played against a lot of good centres. I don’t know what it looked like to you guys, but I didn’t feel out of my depth at any stage.”
Cave was particularly unfortunate last season when he would have been the only outside centre standing after O’Driscoll, Earls and Luke Fitzgerald were all ruled out of the Six Nations opener at home to Wales. Alas, in Ulster’s penultimate Heineken Cup pool game, a 41-7 routing of Leicester on Friday, January 13th, Cave was hurt and sidelined for six weeks with an ankle ligament injury.
It’s hard to dispute his belief that being part of Ulster’s subsequent run to the Heineken Cup final improved him as a player, and over the years he has placed a particular emphasis on improving his work-rate off the ball.
“The way I was at (Sullivan High) school, I was just running around the place and not being too fussed on working too hard. If you look at Brian, he’s very good on the ball but he’s also one of the best off the ball as well and that’s the benchmark for where I’m trying to get to.”
Ah yes, O’Driscoll.
“When he was running in that hat-trick in 2000 I was only 13 years old, so I’ve always looked up to him. He’s from the same country and it’s the same position, and it’s good playing against him. He’s still probably the best going and training with him is brilliant, I always keep a wee eye on him because obviously he’s done a lot more right than wrong in his career.”
Ask him if he can replace the irreplaceable, he reasons: “It’s a hard one for me to answer. Sometimes I hear people say, ‘oh, he’s not up to it’ and to be honest with you, I don’t know if I’m up to it because I haven’t been out there before.
“I’ve been answering all sorts of questions for years about replacing Brian so it’s nice that you actually said yourself that he is irreplaceable. I’m not looking to replace him, I’m just looking to try to play rugby as well as I can.”
This season Cave has played eight games for an Ulster team that, including pre-season, has a dozen wins from a dozen matches, whereas Ireland have lost five on the bounce, but he maintains he has not detected a difference psychologically.
“No. I think that game at the weekend was a bitter pill to swallow. The boys were absolutely devastated on Monday morning but at the same time I couldn’t help but think, they (South Africa) are the second best team in the world and we could have beaten them. The boys have taken a bit of criticism about the attack, which I think is very harsh.
“World rankings don’t lie, they’re the second best team in the world and I thought we were better than them at the weekend. So while we’re eighth at the minute I still think that can be a positive.”