Cave steps into the light

If the past three and a half years have taught Darren Cave anything it’s the virtue of patience.

As Keith Earls will attest, being an outside centre in the same era as Brian O’Driscoll has been a frustrating experience but at least the Munster man has been deployed elsewhere on the Ireland team.

Cave, though, is an out and out 13 and, since the Ulsterman earned his first call-up to a Test squad ahead of the 2009 Six Nations, chances to shine in a green jersey have been few and very far between.

O’Driscoll’s deserved ownership of the Ireland shirt notwithstanding, Cave has been either overlooked or injured for all but three of the 44 Tests Declan Kidney has selected since he was first introduced to the national senior set-up.

A member of Eric Elwood’s 2007 U20 Six Nations Grand Slam-winning team, in which he played outside centre and his contemporary Earls had to settled for a place on the wing, Cave also featured at 13 for the Wolfhounds with his Munster rival inside him at 12.

When Kidney first called him up on February 2, 2009, Jonny Sexton, U20 team-mate Cian Healy, and Mike Ross were also among the new boys, as were Tom Court, Ian Dowling and Ryan Caldwell.

Yet as Kidney struck gold in his first Six Nations campaign with a Grand Slam, Cave had to wait until that summer, when the bulk of Ireland’s heroes went on the 2009 Lions tour to South Africa, to break into the Test team with consecutive starts in North America against Canada and the United States.

And then, well, nothing. Earls and Healy may have established themselves as Kidney favourites but the next time Cave wore an Ireland jersey was this summer when he toured New Zealand and got seven minutes off the bench in the first Test at Eden Park.

“It can be frustrating but it’s something I’m used to,” Cave says of being overlooked. “As soon as Tommy Bowe signed back for Ulster last season, everyone was saying Tommy is coming back to play centre for Ulster and I suppose 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.

“I think a couple of seasons ago I missed most of the season, last season I played a lot of rugby but it was just that crucial time in the Six Nations when Brian was out with a shoulder and neck problem and I was out injured, but I can’t control that.

“I’m fit and healthy at the minute and there’s plenty of rugby going, hopefully I’ll get a game somewhere.”

Now aged 25, Cave does indeed have the opportunity to enhance his claim as the heir apparent to O’Driscoll this Saturday when he is in line to start against Fiji at Thomond Park. There may not be a cap on offer but it is a chance to shine and throw down a marker for many more caps down the line.

“It can be hard at times and 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 at the same time I’m not going to lie and say I’d rather be on three than 30.

“At the same time I look at [Ulster flanker] Chris Henry last weekend [against South Africa] 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.”

Of course, someone has to replace the great and irreplaceable BOD but will he pass the test? Even Cave is not sure.

“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 think I’ve put in some pretty good performances in big games with Ulster and I’d like to be given the opportunity to see what I can do at that level.

“I’ve been answering sort of questions for years about replacing Brian so it’s nice [to hear] 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.”

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