Cave aims to grab spotlight
A bit like the fifth Beatle, Darren Cave's role in Irish rugby's injury-enforced mini-revolution during the November series was a tad overlooked.
Although he prospered promisingly against Fiji as the latest in a long line of potential auditions for Brian O'Driscoll's post-retirement jersey, Gilroy of the Rovers and a host of other bristling young Ulster talent nabbed the headlines instead.
His frustration is palpable, but the determination to ensure he remains in the spotlight is undimmed. Tomorrow in a summit Pro12 meeting against the Scarlets, Cave will get another opportunity to demonstrate his credentials outside another tyro bursting with international intent, Luke Marshall.
Literally waiting in the wings outside this midfield pairing is a de facto face-off between deposed Ireland international Andrew Trimble and his successor – the aforementioned Craig Gilroy.
Ulster coach Mark Anscombe will hardly acknowledge it, but the best performer is likely to gain the berth on the left wing when Tommy Bowe returns for the Heineken Cup double-header against Northampton next week.
Only if the midfield functions properly can the outside flyers show their mettle and Cave is delighted to be returning to the provincial fray after his more than competent, albeit limited, international trial.
"I didn't really do much during November, so I'm really happy to be ready to play again," says Cave.
"However, to get my opportunity to play during that Fiji game was good and I felt it went very well for me. While the opposition was not great, there was not a lot more I could have done. I would have loved the chance to play against Argentina. But I was still very pleased with the way I did perform at Thomond Park.
"Certainly playing alongside a number of Ulster players in that game helped, but not as much as you might have presumed.
"For example, I haven't played a lot of rugby with Luke for Ulster really. But with Paddy Jackson at 10 and Craig out wide, it was nice to have those Ulster combinations.
"In the build-up to the Argentina game, I thought, at the time, that I had given a very good account of myself and if I didn't get selection for that game, which I didn't, then I would have no regrets.
"You look at things and see a couple of key injuries in the backs during November and you are still not there; you wonder where you actually fit in, particularly if everyone is fit and return for the Six Nations.
"At least it's great to come back to Ulster who are in a good place at present. But the Ulster backline is as hard to get into as the Ireland backline. To come back and play in this team is incredibly exciting and we have a serious chance to win some silverware.
"There will be plenty of opportunity now to showcase my game with Scarlets tomorrow, then back-to-back games against Northampton coming up."
That the unbeaten league leaders can omit Nick Williams, Chris Henry, Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Wallace, while Jared Payne, Stephen Ferris, Lewis Stevenson and Declan Fitzpatrick remain sidelined with injury, indicates the robustness of the province's resources this term.
Skipper Johann Muller's earlier than expected return following his thumb surgery is undoubtedly a boost, particularly with the predicted forward scraps against Northampton in mind.
Added to the inclusions of Trimble and Gilroy, Iain Henderson and Paddy Jackson are also in the starting line-up, while Bowe joins Dan Tuohy, Tom Court and a fit-again Rory Best on a pretty formidable bench.
Scarlets, depleted thanks to their Union's money-grabbing fourth (failed) attempt in a row to fill the Millennium Stadium, can welcome back at least a trio of their other internationals – namely Deacon Manu (Fiji), Tomas Vallejos (Argentina) and Kirby Myhill (Wales).
Cave acknowledges that the Welsh side's scruffy win in Cork last weekend advertises their danger. "We don't normally play on a Sunday, so we have just a five-day turnaround before the Saints which isn't ideal."
"We have done this before, so we won't be using it as an excuse, and it's not something we are overly worried about. The league table makes good reading at present, but Scarlets pulled off a great result last week in Musgrave Park where they hadn't won on 16 previous visits, so they will be on a high, particularly at home."
Ulster wouldn't be human if they hadf not got one eye on that first clash against Northampton.
Scarlets – D Newton; K Phillips, G Maule, G Owen, A Fenby; A Thomas, G Davies; P John, E Phillips, J Adriaanse, J Snyman, R Kelly, G Earle, J Edwards (capt), K Murphy. Reps: K Myhill, S Hopkins, D Manu, T Vallejos, C Price, A Davies, A Warren, N Reynolds.
Ulster – P Nelson; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, P Marshall; C Black, R Herring, J Afoa, J Muller (capt), N McComb, I Henderson, R Diack, R Wilson. Reps: R Best, T Court, R Lutton, D Tuohy, M McComish, M Heaney, N O'Connor, T Bowe.
Ref – P Fitzgibbon (IRFU).
Llanelli Scarlets v Ulster,
Live, tomorrow, BBC2, 4.0