Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind
There is no doubt whatsoever that Darren Cave has made a huge contribution to Ulster Rugby over the last decade plus. He may not have been the absolute best player without debate to have worn the 13 jersey – given the likes of Jared Payne have featured during the same period – but he has without question made the greatest contribution.
So how is it then that Cave comes to announce his retirement at the tender age of 32 and a few days? He has not experienced a career-ending injury, nor has he in any sense dropped off a cliff in terms of form. Only two weekends ago he made his mark in a European Champions Cup quarter-final, with Ulster narrowly losing out to holders and favourites Leinster.
The answer is simple – it’s a peculiar Belfast and Irish rugby thing. If Cave was playing in England he would have the ability to keep playing professionally for a few more years, to move sideways or step down a level. The same is true if he was playing in France. I’m sure he has had offers in those quarters. Similarly had he been an Ulster import, he would have been happy to head closer to home and stay on the field.
But he’s a Belfast – or more accurately Holywood – boy and the prospect of commuting to keep playing or up-routing his family for what may only be one or two seasons understandably maybe didn’t appeal.
In seasons past, Connacht provided the step down or sideways move for many Ulster and Ireland players, but they have raised their game and those opportunities have long gone. Even at Ulster in seasons past, a way would have been found to keep a club legend like Cave involved, but there is no longer budget for sentimentalism.
He is viewed as blocking the progress of up and coming talent, the likes of James Hume and Hayden Hyde, the end-of-season arrival from Harlequins. With Will Addison and Luke Marshall already on the books and Stuart McCloskey seemingly able to play every minute of every match, it was always likely there would be no further swansong for Cave.
Yet, Cave leaves Ravenhill having given the fans some tremendous memories, many of the best on big European occasions. And of course this season isn’t over yet.
Ulster proved against Leinster that at close to full strength they can go toe to toe with the best club sides around. Ulster fans revelled in the courage and commitment of their team. They lost but the fans felt like winners. Likewise, the criticism of Jacob Stockdale came from outside, not inside the player pool or fan base
The mental exhaustion that was Dublin last Saturday week was always going to inhibit their ability to do an away PRO14 job at Glasgow. Other results didn’t go Ulster’s way either, but things remain firmly in their own hands.
If they box off their fatigue, a win away at Edinburgh will almost certainly put them back in the end of season play-offs where anything could happen. It would be a fitting send off for Cave, and one or two others if Ulster could once again finish the season in the PRO14 knockout mix.
Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.
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