Cave eager for Ulster to lay down a title-winning marker
Ulster's march in the top four of the Guinness Pro12 is a priority, given their fiendishly difficult play-off run-in, and their Italian job this afternoon against Zebre should account for another five points, even though they have made ten changes for the tie.
After seven barren seasons, centre Darren Cave is mindful that his side must lay down a marker as soon as possible as they seek to end a famine that stretched back to their last League triumph in 2006.
“I’m almost embarrassed and you’re wary of putting more pressure on yourself,” he says. “There are a few boys who have been the first team to win in France, to win in England, beat all four Welsh regions.
“We’ve been the first to do a lot of things but none of those accolades mean anything. We haven’t won a trophy. The rest doesn’t really count for anything.”
A summer of upheaval threatened pessimism but the players recruited intelligently by director of rugby David Humphreys before he decamped for a new challenge in Gloucester are, thus far at least, proving a decent legacy.
Craig Gilroy is one of seven Ireland internationals in the side and returns to the starting line-up at full-back, with Tommy Bowe switching to the right wing while Michael Allen starts on the left.
Cave is joined in midfield by last year’s Academy Player of the season, Stuart McCloskey, making his first start of the season.
Up front, there is a whole new front-row with Callum Black named at loosehead, Rob Herring selected at hooker and Declan Fitzpatrick, who has recovered from injury, starting at tighthead.
Former Lansdowne player Clive Ross starts his first competitive match for the province at openside.
Hapless Zebre have slipped to four straight defeats in the Guinness Pro12 and have yet to defeat an Irish province in their 22 previous encounters.
Ulster have already secured five points in this reverse fixture and are fully expected to do repeat the feat with bells and whistles this afternoon.
As an aside, the Celtic League have announced, belatedly, the appointment of Nuvolari as Guinness Pro12 host broadcaster, beginning with today’s clash.
Ulster – C Gilroy; T Bowe, D Cave, S McCloskey, M Allen; P Jackson, M Heaney; C Black, R Herring, D Fitzpatrick; N McComb, F van der Merwe; R Wilson (capt), C Ross, N Williams. Reps: R Best, R Murphy, W Herbst, L Stevenson, M McComish, P Marshall, I Humphreys, A Trimble.
Zebre – H Daniller; G Toniolatti, G Bisegni, K Haimona, L Sarto; E Padovani, G Palazzini; M Aguero, A Manici, D Chistolini; Q Geldenhuys (capt), G Biagi; M Bergamasco, F Cristiano, S Vunisa. Reps: O Fabiani, A Lovotti, L Leibson, A Ferreira, V Bernabo, A Chillon, G Garcia, L Orquera.
Ref – P Fitzgibbon (IRFU).
Ulster v Zebre,
Live, BBC2, 3.0