Munster rugby star Darren Sweetnam, Dunmanway’s finest export, chats to KIERAN McCARTHY about making the breakthrough with Ireland in 2017
KIERAN McCARTHY (KMC): Before we talk Ireland and Munster rugby, I was chatting to your dad, Leslie, a few weeks back and he mentioned an assault course at home in Dunmanway when you were four years old and you beat your brother and sister, Clinton and Rachel, who were eight. Tell me more.
DARREN SWEETNAM (DS): I think he was exaggerating a bit … I don’t know did I beat them every time! I remember it alright, dad used to put chairs up and down the hall and we had to do press-ups, climb under chairs, over chairs; it was ridiculous! Because we were so competitive I never wanted to lose to my brother or my sister.
KMC: And now you have more international caps (2) than Clinton who played hockey for Ireland. Bragging rights to you.
DS: Clinton got a cap against Israel, I think, and he was always slagging me that he has one cap and I had none – but now I have passed him out, so the power has swapped over. That’s the end of that for him!
KMC: Before the November Series came around, popular opinion was that you’d be included in the Ireland squad for the summer tour of Japan – but you were a surprise omission.
DS: I had a bulging disc at the time but it wasn’t because of that, I just wasn’t picked. That was obviously disappointing but what could I do about it? I put the head down, got a full pre-season in with Munster and worked hard so it was nice to get the nod for the November Series.
KMC: Keith Earls’ injury opened the door for the November Series and you ended up with two caps – a second-half sub in the win against South Africa and the following week you started and scored a try against Fiji.
DS: To be honest I wasn’t really expecting it. It was great to be involved against South Africa and then to get my first start and first try against Fiji was pretty special.
It was a bit of luck with Keith’s injury that opened the door. When Joe (Schmidt) told me I was going to be on the bench for the South Africa game, I was pretty nervous – but when you get a chance at this level you need to take it. There’s such competition for places that you need to make the most of every opportunity and I think I did okay.
Growing up in Ireland it’s every young boy’s dream to play for Ireland, to throw on the green jersey and represent your country, so to get my first start and then score a try as well was unbelievable. I know it wasn’t a good performance but it was an incredible day for me. It was a proud day for my family as well.
KMC: What did Joe Schmidt say to you after the Fiji game?
DS: He was happy enough with how I played but the performance as a team wasn’t great. We had 11 turnovers at half time and we didn’t play as well as we could, but at least we got the win.
KMC: You have your foot in the door there now, it’s slightly open, so what’s the plan for 2018?
DS: My main goal is to keep working hard with Munster. There’s so much competition there that you’re not guaranteed your spot either so I need to put the head down, work hard and try to get better. I’ll see where it goes from there and hopefully I’ll get another opportunity with Ireland in the future.
KMC: Being involved in the Irish set-up and getting that taste of international rugby must act as some incentive to get back there asap?
DS: 100 per cent. It’s absolutely incredible being in with the squad, it’s such an amazing set-up in Carton House and then playing and training with the likes of Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney. It’s where you want to be.
KMC: What’s the biggest lesson you learned from your time with the Irish set-up?
DS: It’s just how professional the lads are with Ireland, how hard they work and it gives you an idea of what level you need to get at to become a regular with Ireland. International rugby is so physical and it’s a lot faster so I got to see where I need to get to and how much work I have to do to get there on a consistent basis.
There are still a lot of things to work on but I can’t complain, I have two caps now and I need to push on from here.
KMC: These are changing times in Munster too with Johann van Graan taking over from Rassie Erasmus.
DS: It’s exciting to be honest. Rassie is a world-class coach and he will be a big loss but Johann is an incredible coach and an excellent replacement, so these are exciting times. We have Felix Jones and Jerry Flannery too so there’s a very strong set-up there and it’s up to me to learn as much as I can from them all. I’m learning all the time, trying to improve my game so working with top-quality coaches is ideal.
KMC: Ideally, if you go well with Munster you’ll put yourself in Joe Schmidt’s thoughts, and there’s the little matter of a Rugby World Cup in 2019 coming up on the horizon…
DS: To be honest I am not even thinking that far ahead, there could be injuries, anything can happen so I’m just looking at the present with Munster, working hard, trying to improve and we’ll see where that takes me.