| 6.5°C Dublin

Cave's keen to catch up on contemporaries' caps count by filling boots of 'hero' O'Driscoll

THOSE were the days. It was the spring of 2007. Ireland were tearing Italy apart at the seams in the U-20 Grand Slam decider. There was Cian Healy at loosehead, Ian Keatley at fly-half, Keith Earls on the wing, Felix Jones at full-back and Darren Cave in the centre.

IT WAS a special band of brothers. Luke Fitzgerald was eligible, but not available for the Six Nations. Sean O'Brien was not a certain starter.

Five years later, Earls has 32 caps and the prestige of being a British & Irish Lion tucked under his belt. Healy is a front-runner for the 2013 Lions with one more Ireland cap than Earls.

Behind them, Cave started Test matches against Canada and USA in the summer of 2009 and was summoned from the bench for seven minutes against New Zealand in the first Test at Eden Park back in June.

"It can be hard sometimes. You can be jealous of someone and be happy for them at the same time - similar to how I see Keith (Earls) and Cian Healy," he admitted.

"I see them now with 30 caps. I am delighted for them. At the same time, I'm not going to lie and say I'd rather be on three than 30."

Cave must have felt like the odd man out when Tommy Bowe and Earls were touted for Ireland's No 13 jersey against South Africa.

He had to sit and suffer in silence as various pundits and columnists offered up Monaghan's Bowe or Limerick's Earls as the best option to replace the irreplaceable Brian O'Driscoll for November.

While Bowe has been stationed on the wing for Ulster and Earls has alternated between wing and centre for Munster, Cave has nailed down the very slot for Ulster, Europe's only unbeaten club.

"That can be frustrating, but it is something I am getting used to. Tommy Bowe was signed back to Ulster last season. Everyone was saying how Tommy had come back to play centre.

"Myself and Paddy Wallace were looking at each other saying 'What have we done wrong?' We played in a lot of big games last year, against a lot of good centres.

"Clermont were in our group (in the Heineken Cup). (Aurelien) Rougerie plays there. We played against Keith (Earls) in the quarters and Brian (O'Driscoll) in the final. I didn't feel out of my depth at any stage."

What Earls and Healy have not had to contend with is an iconic, luminous figure standing in their path to international status.

"I have been answering questions for years about replacing Brian. He is irreplaceable. I am not looking to replace him. I'm looking to try and play rugby as well as I can," said the Sullivan Upper graduate.


Cave has been caught between trying to oust O'Driscoll from the 13 jersey and also watching and learning in the presence of Ireland's captain.

"If you look at Brian, he is very good on the ball, but he is one of the best in the world off the ball as well," said Cave. "That is the benchmark for where I am trying to get to.

"There is no hiding the fact that when he was running in that hat-trick against France in 2000, I was only 13-years-old. He was a hero to me.

"He is from the same country in the same position and is still probably the best going. Training with him is brilliant. I keep a wee eye on him to see how he's going. He has done a lot more right than wrong in his career."

While Cave has had to look on in envy at O'Driscoll building a personal and team legacy and his friends Earls and Healy building their block of caps, he finds inspiration closer to home. "I look at Chris Henry last weekend, who's three years older than me and now has three caps. His chance was long overdue and he took his chance," Cave said.

"It gives me inspiration that even if I'm still waiting around in three years, if I get in, I can take my chance."

There was a time when Cave was content to be here. Not anymore. The injured O'Driscoll is nowhere in the vicinity. This could be his week.

These are the days.