Ulster and Irish rugby star Darren Cave reflects on his time in the Irish setup, pride in representing his province, the future of Irish rugby, and his Brexit worries.

I don’t remember The Troubles. My parents do. As a 31-year-old man from Holywood in Northern Ireland – who plays a bit of rugby – it seems to me what is happening right now is a threat to The Good Friday Agreement. This deeply concerns my generation as peace is all we have ever known.

Being a proud Ulster man and playing for Ireland should not be complicated in the twenty-first century. Yet, after watching the Brian O’Driscoll documentary Shoulder to Shoulder – which tells the story about Irish rugby charting a course through The Troubles, and not without some cost – we cannot avoid the coincidence of Brexit becoming a reality on the same weekend Ulster travel down to Dublin to face Leinster in a Champions Cup quarter-final.

After everything we’ve been through in Northern Ireland, can you imagine the most successful Ireland captain ever, Rory Best, having to drive through a hard border to play at the Aviva stadium?   

How is this good for my generation? It is now apparent to me that the British citizens who voted in the European referendum did not fully understand what they were really voting for. Michael Heseltine – a name synonymous with Conservative politics in the UK throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s – recently stated he would be “sad that my generation betrayed the young generation.”

Above all else, we need to secure a peaceful and happy Northern Ireland.

Forget Brexit – if you can for a moment – and Northern Ireland politics is still in a dreadful place. For over two years our elected officials have steadfastly refused to govern.

Like an overwhelming majority of people my age, I believe in equality. I am Pro Choice. I believe in marriage equality regardless of gender.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) disagrees with me. To them and Sinn Fein it remains the same as it ever was. It’s all about colours. Protestants vote for the red, white and blue because they do not want a united Ireland. Catholics vote the opposite way.

The real problems – healthcare, homelessness, equality – are ignored because our government has been absent, with pay, since January 2017 over an Irish Language Act which was reportedly due to cost £8 million pounds. In the meantime elected Members of the Legislative Assembly have banked over £10 million in salaries without reporting for work (albeit they are at least present in their constituencies).

What is so depressing is that during this very same period of time the global perception of Ireland (the Republic of Ireland), has been radically altered following the Marriage Equality and Repeal the Eight referendums. Gone are the days of the Catholic Church denying progress. Gone are so many old perceptions and in their stead appears Dublin, this modern, multi-cultural society. It is a really cool place to visit. My former teammate Callum Black and I looked at the Dublin cafe culture and tried to replicate it in Belfast with our own place called Guilt Trip (we also sell handmade donuts).

The political landscape in Northern Ireland is a very sad state of affairs and I don’t know how it is going to change as the DUP versus Sinn Fein saga rumbles ever on with the two communities entrenched on either side.  I would love in my life time to see parties not based around Unionist or Republican ideals taking control of our future.

Darren Cave | The Sports Chronicle | 2015 Rugby World Cup Group D, Wembley Stadium, London, England 27/9/2015.Ireland vs Romania .Ireland's Darren Cave .Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

2015 Rugby World Cup Group D, Wembley Stadium, London, England 27/9/2015.Ireland vs Romania .Ireland’s Darren Cave .Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

I was lucky to be in Joe Schmidt’s company during the 2015 World Cup. It was different to any other coaching experience. He takes you far, far away from your comfort zone. If you are comfortable you are not learning. Ireland camp is rarely an easy experience. You are on edge because if you don’t know precisely what needs doing you will be made to look very silly. That is the successful environment he has created. The uncomfortable nature of his camp makes you a better player.

I can safely say I’m ‘11 Out’, to borrow a cricket analogy. Can’t see myself winning a 12th cap but that’s alright. There’s plenty to keep me focused with Ulster.

I always felt good enough to play for Ireland but so much has to go your way to get selected. After Paddy Wallace was hauled off a beach to play 12 for Ireland in New Zealand in 2012, while I was on tour the entire time, I did wonder that maybe international rugby wasn’t just for me.

I am very grateful for the games I did play. 

Brian O’Driscoll retired around the same time as Jared Payne qualified to play for Ireland after three years – largely playing fullback to my centre – in Belfast. I remember when Jared was signed in 2011 the media called him “Brian O’Driscoll’s replacement” – I tended to agree!

People complain about this, about foreigners being brought in, but I saw Jared the person. He didn’t just spin the globe and say I want to play in Ireland. He was a 26 year old professional rugby player who had not been selected for the All Blacks and still wanted to play international rugby. He had to move half way around the world to achieve his goal, leaving friends and family behind. Never underestimate how difficult a decision that is to make. There is no grudge to hold on my part, I never felt bitter, mainly because Jared was a better player.

And then Garry Ringrose came along.

Every young centre I talk to about defending I tell them to watch Garry. He has got all the tools a centre needs.

It’s been an up and down season for Ulster – one week we are losing by 40 points, the next we are beating Racing 92 – but unlike the past few years there are more ups than downs. 

Leinster are the best team in Europe but that doesn’t mean in a one off game Ulster can’t beat them. We’ll see how it goes on March 30th. They have so many good players, so well prepared and at Christmas they proved how wide the gap is between our so called second teams. They can take 10 internationals from their line-up and play to exactly the same level. Everyone knows we have work to do in this area after losing so many players these past few months.

Ulster does not have a big squad, so there are a lot of younger guys getting important exposure. There is a lot of learning going on. We are in a good place again after the past four years watching Leinster and Munster play knockout rugby. 

So much has happened since facing Leinster in the final at Twickenham in 2012. Our last European quarter-final was the defeat to Saracens in 2014 when Jared was sent off for accidentally colliding with Alex Goode in mid-air.

If you had said to me then – that’s it for the knockout stages until 2019 – I’d have laughed in your face. 

We were contenders, see.

So much upheaval, so much change has occurred in my time as an Ulster player. Mark McCall was my first coach. The longest serving head coach in the past 13 seasons was Brian McLaughlin for three seasons up to 2012. I don’t know why that is, to be honest.

There have been too many transitional periods.

Looking back to 2014 it’s hard to explain how we fell off the cliff. What a team we had. John Afoa was our All Black tighthead prop, Jared was pure class, Ruan Pienaar and Johann Muller brought real direction and leadership, it was Stevie Ferris’s last year, big Nick Williams always made yardage. Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Chris Henry and Rory Best were established Ireland internationals. Luke Marshall and Paddy Jackson had their best seasons to that point. There were other major contributors like Dan Tuohy.

We didn’t kick on.

I was as shocked as anyone touring of Argentina that summer to hear David Humphreys had left Ulster to become director of rugby at Gloucester. Maybe David saw the career opportunity elsewhere, but I still can’t put my finger on what happened. I just remember thinking: why does a lifelong Ulster man, who had got the team to a level where we were genuine contenders for the Heineken Cup every season, suddenly up and leave?

I still don’t know.  It took seriously good work by David to take us from Matt Williams’ time as coach through the McLaughlin period. We weren’t ready to win the Heineken Cup in 2012. We definitely were by 2014.

Darren Cave | The Sports Chronicle | Heineken Cup Final 19/5/2012 Leinster vs Ulster Leinster's Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll with Darren Cave of Ulster Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Heineken Cup Final 19/5/2012 Leinster vs Ulster Leinster’s Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll with Darren Cave of Ulster Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

So much has changed since. A lot of people were angry when Pienaar was moved on by IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora in 2016. Even the DUP got involved! Funny that the biggest political party in Northern Ireland have been unable to form a working government these past two years yet they were on the phone to Nucifora about our Springbok scrumhalf’s contract!

The news was a shock to everyone at Ulster. The Pienaar family were integrated into the community. He didn’t want to leave. His children were Belfast born.

Initially, I thought it was a very harsh call. I didn’t see Ruan blocking the scrumhalf pathway. In hindsight, it proved the right decision. What are we all about in Irish rugby? Ulster’s primary function, like the other provinces, is to supply players to the national team.

John Cooney was second choice in Connacht. He came up here and has been brilliant for us – kicking goals, winning us games – and now he’s playing for Ireland.

Nobody wanted Ruan to leave but from a big picture perspective – which we didn’t see at that time – it was the correct call. It opened the door for other quality players like Jordi Murphy to want to come to Belfast.

Some people are still upset about Pienaar leaving but John Cooney has been a great signing. Ultimately, Nucifora was proved right. The DUP have yet to comment on Cooney as perhaps they are a little preoccupied with The Backstop.

Darren Cave | The Sports Chronicle | RaBoDirect PRO12 Grand Final 25/5/2013 Leinster vs Ulster Ulster's Rory Best, Paddy Jackson, Tommy Bowe, Dan Tuohy, Darren Cave, Declan Fitzpatrick and Rob Herring dejected at the final whistle Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

RaBoDirect PRO12 Grand Final 25/5/2013 Leinster vs Ulster Ulster’s Rory Best, Paddy Jackson, Tommy Bowe, Dan Tuohy, Darren Cave, Declan Fitzpatrick and Rob Herring dejected at the final whistle Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

Most of the people who left last season had been part of the club for as long as I can remember. They were my friends so I was sad to see them leave. That’s just professional sport – it happens all the time – but it was uncommon to lose so many key figures at the same time: the CEO followed our director of rugby, head coach, head of strength and conditioning, physiotherapist and international outhalf out the door. That’s before I mention the retirements of Trimble, Bowe and Chris Henry. Then there were the guys who moved on since this season begun – Jean Deysel, Rodney Ah You, Pete Brown and Schalk van der Merwe.

Talk about clean slates!

So far so good. We can’t possibly have any real strength in depth. Not enough bodies have come in but I already see us reaping the rewards from exposing our academy boys to big games. Regular supporters at the Kingspan know all about loosehead Eric O’Sullivan, Mikey Lowry is a revelation at fullback, as is James Hume in the centre.

The departure of Stuart Olding and Paddy Jackson is well documented and, really, it was such a strange circumstance, one that no club expects to ever go through. On a personal level, having played and trained with Paddy and Stu for their entire careers up until now, it’s nice to see them enjoying their rugby again in France because they had a long time out of the game. They are two fantastically talented players. I am excited about their futures in rugby over the coming years. I hear Paddy is moving to London Irish to play for Deccie Kidney and Les Kiss again (Kidney capped the pair of us). Hopefully London Irish will be promoted to the Premiership. It is one step closer to home for him. Stuart is due to stay in France, where he is coached by another Ulster man Jeremy Davidson at Brive. As long as they are enjoying their rugby that makes me happy. I hope they continue to play well.

In May 2018 four Ulster men sat down to talk about the club’s future. Our Head of Operations and former teammate Bryn Cunningham, club captain Rory Best and Iain Henderson felt we needed to map out the road ahead. We realised Ulster could be starting preseason without a head coach, as Dan McFarland couldn’t get early release from his contract with Scotland (Simon Easterby filled the gap), or a head of fitness.

The head coach is vital, obviously, but strength and conditioning is integral in preseason. It’s vital every day but the summer months are when foundations get laid for the season ahead.

How you go about your business must be ingrained by October or there will be countless wee problems.

Bryn, Rory, Iain and myself spoke about this. We broke it back down to source: what does it mean to be an Ulster man in 2019? What does it mean to play for this province?

In the modern era you don’t have to be from ‘the north’ to wear the jersey with pride.

We embraced that idea. There’s about ten guys in our squad who are from Ireland but outside of Ulster. We changed that way of thinking by welcoming these players with open arms. We did that by making sure each new arrival was part of our culture, of our future. It doesn’t matter where you are born, it’s about wanting to play for each other.

What’s interesting about Jordi Murphy and Marty Moore arriving – besides the fact they are international calibre players – is their perspective. They see how Ulster is viewed externally.

We asked them what opponents fear about us so we could build on that. We also asked them about negative perceptions.

Billy Burns and Will Addison came from England so that was equally enlightening.

I won’t tell you about the negatives but all four men alluded to how tough a place The Kingspan stadium is to visit on those big Friday nights or freezing Saturday afternoons.

Sounds so obvious but it filled us with confidence. We don’t have a reputation for being soft. We are difficult to beat in Belfast. Right, let’s ensure this perception remains a reality.

Leicester were first up in Europe. They are not the Titans of English rugby anymore, but we got the job done. After beating Scarlets back to back in December our tails were up. When Racing arrived in January we knew for all the expensive talent in their squad, French teams hate travelling to Ireland, so we went after them from the off and squeezed out a famous victory.

There are a few certainties: it’s going to take a lot of hard work and time to get back to 2014 standards but in one off games we can beat anyone. Also, this Ulster team is better coached, we train at a higher intensity, than any other time I can remember.

Dan McFarland has us prepared for every game.

Getting back to the backstop or lack thereof, Brexit has consumed my thoughts of late. What has really shocked me about the whole affair is how many campaign promises were blatantly untrue. I find it disturbing that is allowed to happen in a first world democracy. Complete lies. Mind blowing.

I believe in democracy so people shouldn’t be allowed vote all over again just because they lost. However, if there is No Deal or the Deal ends up being nothing like the terms the people who voted to leave the EU were told it would be, then we have ourselves a red herring. That situation, I feel, leaves us with only one option: a second referendum.

I just hope the unique balance that makes Irish rugby so successful is not disrupted by Brexit. I know my generation couldn’t stomach that.

 

Darren,

February 2018.

 

If you enjoyed Darren’s story, you might like to read former Ulster, Ireland, & Lions star Stephen Ferris’ “The Ghosts Of World Cups Past

 

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