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Dublin: 4°C Tuesday 2 March 2021

Now or never for Darren Cave as he looks to nail down Ireland's 13 slot

The 27-year-old has a shot at proving to Joe Schmidt that he is a centre of international quality.

Cave races clear to score against Canada last summer.
Cave races clear to score against Canada last summer.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

THESE ARE CRUCIAL days in Darren Cave’s career, as he looks to convince the Irish coaching staff that he is an outside centre of international quality.

The retirement of Brian O’Driscoll and injury to Robbie Henshaw mean that the Ulsterman has a clear run at Ireland’s 13 shirt, possibly for both upcoming Tests against Argentina.

Jared Payne, much touted as an option for Joe Schmidt at outside centre in the near future, is not yet qualified, while the likes of Keith Earls and Fergus McFadden have settled into life as wingers. Cave will never have a better chance to show his worth.

The 27-year-old has won five caps for Ireland, four of which were starts in the 13 shirt, while he also played there in an unfairly uncapped match against Fiji in 2012. However, barring eight minutes off the bench against New Zealand in 2013, Cave has never played against top-level international opposition.

His four starts for Ireland have come against the US and Canada, and although these fixtures in Argentina have seen Los Pumas name a weakened squad, there is a key difference for the Ulster centre on this occasion.

The presences of the likes of Jonny Sexton, Jamie Heaslip and Paul O’Connell means that Cave is part of a squad that resembles something closer to Ireland’s strongest. With better players around him, Cave has the opportunity to stand out more than in the past.

Darren Cave with fans Cave signs autographs after training in Buenos Aires yesterday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Bringing a battalion of youngsters on tours such as this to Argentina is a laudable sentiment, but it means that the individual players must build a team from scratch, rather than fitting into structures that already exist and therefore allow them to thrive.

Not that Cave is a youngster any longer; which leads us to the point of what Schmidt will want to see from him on this tour. At the age of 27, and with better players around him, Cave must dominate the midfield against Argentina.

If selected, he will come up against two of Matías Orlando, Jerónimo De la Fuente and Gabriel Ascárate in the midfield battle. All three have their virtues, but these are players that Cave clearly needs to be excelling against.

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Four starts for Ireland, including two on last summer’s North American tour, and we have yet to see Cave own the midfield. It’s a demanding task in any fixture, with centres being so reliant on their teammates and the flow of the particular game to provide them with ample opportunity to impress, but that is the demand on Cave now.

While match-day performances are of utmost importance, the Ulster centre will be judged away from the pitch too. Schmidt is a coach who understands that squad culture and day-to-day standards are key components of success; his players must feed off and contribute to those elements.

Cave’s interaction with teammates, ability to voice meaningful opinions, and his attitude towards training, recovery, and analysis may all be part of the judgement process. He will have targeted becoming a key player on the pitch and a key personality off it.

Darren Cave Cave hits the shoulders during Ireland's gym session at the Cenard Training Facility. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Recent signs have been promising for the Ulster centre, who has demonstrated that he can fill in more than competently in the 12 shirt too. Cave was one of the better backs in the Pro12 semi-final against Leinster when he played at inside centre.

His skills and body shape around the breakdown are ever-improving, while his defensive reads and pre-contact footwork also continue to get better. In heavy traffic, Cave has the ability to slip the ideal pass to teammates over short distances, while also offering solid distribution to wider channels.

Some critics may feel that Cave’s chance at becoming an important part of the Ireland set-up in the long-term has realistically passed, but we must only look to Devin Toner [27] and Chris Henry [29] for proof that there is no ‘set’ age before which to nail down an international spot.

Cave has already begun the process of proving that his face fits in this Ireland squad over the last few days, and the centre will hope to make major progress in that regard in Resistencia on Saturday.

Do you think Cave has the ability to nail down the 13 shirt for Ireland? 

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Murray Kinsella

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