Short-term game time with Ulster can help Darren Cave’s long-term ambitions
‘The big picture is I want to go to the World Cup in 12 months’
Darren Cave: “If boys are putting in big performances against Leicester and Toulon they are not going to be far away.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho. RaboDirect PRO12 Play-Off 17/5/2014Leinster vs UlsterUlsterÕs Darren CaveMandatory Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland
Darren Cave’s current preoccupation is internal. Ulster – not Joe Schmidt – are providing the first of a series of hurdles to straddle if his ambition to play in next year’s World Cup isn’t to perish.
Cave played twice for Ireland in Argentina during the summer, the first Test at 13 before he was moved inside to 12. But as much in Ulster as in Ireland, the 27-year-old hopes this time he looks more the part.
Speaking his mind in 2013, a frustrated Cave saw Robbie Henshaw shunted in to the November series ahead of him and observed that “sometimes you wonder does the face not fit.”
He continued in a similar vein and in a ballsy interview questioned how Roger Wilson had one cap for Ireland and Jamie Heaslip had 60 and two Lions tours behind him.
But there’s no edge today. Ulster sit more comfortably than Munster or Leinster in the Pro12 table. Now it’s a run in to the Rugby Champions Cup, a platform, as the players see it, for the November series. While the frustration has left him, his ambitions are alive. Cave’s versatility in centre positions could help.
“I think it’s a good thing. In the past, particularly with Ireland, when I haven’t been selected for Ulster I almost rule myself from being on the (Irish) bench if I’m only covering 13.
“The big picture is I want to go to the World Cup in 12 months and if I can play two positions I’ve a slightly bigger chance of going there.”
Zebre away this weekend won’t rank as one of the marquee matches. Ulster won last year 11-19 with the Italians showing little sign of moving away from being the whipping boys of Europe.
But playing is a first box ticked, Italian or not. In the first week of the season his shoulder was recovering, the second week against Zebre he took a bang to the ribs and departed but started last week. Cardiff he remembers “got well stuck in” but the try bonus points have Ulster on 12 points and the weather vane has swung nicely around.
“There’s no prizes for being top of the league at the end of September,” he says dismissively. “To be sitting with 12 points after three games, whether it’s third, fifth or whatever it’s a good place to be.
“One thing we have this year that we haven’t had in the past is a real competition for places. That’s somewhere other Irish provinces have been ahead of us in the past. Players in these games have to play well if they want to be considered for Europe.”
Stuart Olding, Luke Marshall and Jared Payne are the higher profile contenders in the midfield. They are thinking the same as Cave. A school friend of Rory McIlroy at Sullivan Upper, Cave’s mind may wander to Gleneagles this weekend but he’s aware of how the next four weeks can throw the season.
“Anyone who starts for Ulster in these big Heineken [sic] games and plays well is in with a shout for Ireland,” he reflects. “If boys are putting in big performances against Leicester and Toulon they are not going to be far away.”
Ulster suffered no serious injuries at the weekend except for Dan Tuohy, who is out for 12 weeks with a fractured arm.