Injuries have stunted the progression of Dunmanway man Darren Sweetnam with Munster. He should be in his prime now, but we haven’t seen enough of the West Cork man in recent times. TOM SAVAGE, editor of Three Red Kings, the popular site for Munster rugby fans, takes a closer look at what the future might hold for Sweetnam
EVERY top rugby player that you see is a really a product of momentum. They are the endpoint of sustained series of moments in time that fall their way and lead to the end product that we all see – a top international, a provincial star, a serial winner.
The only problem is, we usually only see the full procession of moments at the end of the road when we look back at the story of a player, like looking back at a game of snakes and ladders. What was a ladder and what was a snake? In most cases, we only see parts of the grander scheme while the player is still playing.
For Darren Sweetnam, I think we’re yet to see the full picture of what he is to become. What we know for certain is that Darren Sweetnam is a supremely talented back three player. He’s solid under the high ball, he’s got a top-end finish on him, he’s a deceptively talented runner and handler of the ball but, crucially, he’s got that x-factor that sends a ripple around the stands of Thomond and Musgrave Park.
We also know two of his moments already. First, the ladder.
It’s October 2016. Darren Sweetnam is chasing a Glasgow Warrior breakaway in the game known now as the Axel game. Munster are winning with a bonus point but, with 14 men, are starting to tire and the crowd with them. With Jaco Taute down with cramp, Glasgow manage to get the ball wide off a turnover and break down the field. A score here would make for a nervy last quarter. As they surged up the field, a try looked inevitable.
But nobody told Darren Sweetnam.
He tracked the breakaway from across the field and the Thomond Park crowd started to come up as he chased. Sweetnam got closer to the runner. The crowd got louder. Sweetnam hauled the runner down and Thomond erupted like a try had been scored.
The ball squirted loose to a Glasgow player but Sweetnam tackled him too, and the crowd rose again. Glasgow would score a few minutes later but Sweetnam’s chase of a supposed lost cause brought the crowd back into the game and Munster would see out the win on the hardest of days soon after.
Sweetnam had played and would play every game for Munster in that 2016/2017 season up until the 23rd of December. Along the way, he would score a wonderful try up against James Lowe on a manky night against the Maori All Blacks a few days after being added to the wider Irish squad for the November internationals. A run in the Six Nations in the wider squad at least looked like a real possibility.
Now for the snake.
An off-the-ball shot from Zane Kirchner injured Sweetnam’s knee against Leinster on December 23rd, 2016, and he missed a full two months of action, including the final two Champions Cup pool games that traditionally act as a shop window for the Six Nations.
That injury badly stalled Sweetnam’s progress that season.
Sweetnam would recover to play a part in Munster’s run to the semi-finals of the Champions Cup that year but couldn’t force his way into the Ireland reckoning on the development tour to the US and Japan.
The next season saw him play a lot of rugby early in the season and make his test debut in November 2017, against South Africa and then he scored a try on his full debut later than month against Fiji, but he struggled to nail down a starting spot for Munster in the larger games that followed. He saw some time off the bench and as an injury replacement for Andrew Conway, Keith Earls and Simon Zebo, who seemed to be the established trio for the big games when fit.
Sweetnam, again, played a lot of rugby in 2018/2019 (1500 minutes over the season) but wasn’t able to force his way into Schmidt’s World Cup wider squad.
This season has been disrupted by a hamstring injury and, as a result, he’s only seen three games since the start of the season. I imagine that will change in the next block of games but this feels like a pivotal time for Sweetnam.
If a player is a collection of moments, he must first get the opportunity to get produce those moments and in his absence this season, a lot of the moments that he might have earmarked have gone to the likes of Shane Daly, Calvin Nash and Liam Coombes, who have all impressed when given the opportunity.
Professional rugby is a ruthless game. It won’t be long until Sweetnam’s contract is coming due and, at 26 years of age, he should be just about hitting his stride as a senior professional around now and starting to make something happen at test level. He’s accrued 81 Munster caps since he made his debut in 2015 and, for me, has the physicality and ability for more regular test consideration.
He’ll only do that by impressing on the field for Munster, be it on the wing or at full back and a lot will tell on where he is selected going forward. What’s his best position? I’ve long thought that Sweetnam has got the passing, intelligence and high ball security required to be a top-level full back and, in some regards, he already plays a quasi-full back role whenever I’ve watched him for Munster over the last few seasons. He doesn’t just hang out in the wing waiting for opportunities – he tracks the play across the field, runs deceptive lines and is a devastating kick return option.
An opportunity lies ahead of him regardless of where he settles into on his return from injury but he’s got to hit the ground running given the opportunities ahead of him in the depth chart – Earls heading into his 30s, Conway seeing a lot of test game time and I have a feeling that the Munster number 15 shirt has yet to take a definitive shape since Simon Zebo left. All Sweetnam needs is a run of luck with injury.
Is this latest injury the end of the book or just a chapter in the rise of Sweetnam to regular international recognition in his late twenties? We’ll know soon enough.