Former Doheny and Cork hurler Darren Sweetnam is making a name for himself with Munster rugby, and, as he told Kieran McCarthy, he feels there’s a lot more to come
HE might be a late starter but he’s also a quick learner – and he’s fast making his mark.
Last Friday night, Dunmanway’s Darren Sweetnam started in his third successive PR012 league encounter for Munster, as they lost away (27-24) to Glasgow Warriors in Kilmarnock.
Again, as against Zebre and the Ospreys in the last few weeks, the speedy winger made an impression.
For the 22-year-old West Cork man, it was another step up the ladder, as he strives to carve out a name for himself in the red of Munster, rather than his native Rebel red.
When Sweetnam signed a professional rugby contract with Munster in October 2012, it made national headlines, as the Dohenys man was, at the time, regarded as a promising Cork hurler.
He even came off the bench for JBM’s Rebels in the All-Ireland senior hurling semi-final against Galway in August 2012, scoring a point in a Cork defeat, and many felt a star was in the making – but two months later he turned all his attention to the oval ball.
It was a massive decision for a young man from a traditional GAA area to make, but he was always convinced he made the right decision. His recent strides back that up.
Sweetnam made his competitive debut for Munster against the Cardiff Blues just over 12 months ago, but he had to wait until the recent away trip to Zebre, at the end of January, in round 13 of the PR012 to make his first competitive start. It was worth the wait as he made the step-up to senior ranks with ease.
‘That was a massive moment for me, but also for my family. When I got the news I was starting, I was delighted. I was nervous and excited at the same time. It was a dream come true because I have grown up watching Munster but I never thought that I would one day start for them,’ Sweetnam told The Southern Star.
‘When I signed for Munster a few years ago, it was a big decision to make. I was on the Cork senior hurling team and I was starting to make an impression when the Munster opportunity came about.
‘It was either hurling or rugby and I took a chance, to be honest, joining the Academy, but it’s working out better than I could have hoped for. Getting that first start against Zebre last month has made it all worthwhile. I know I’ve made the right decision.’
The versatile back-three player retained his place for the visit of Ospreys (21-17 defeat) to Musgrave Park on St Valentine’s Day, and he caught the eye on his first start on home soil, setting up Robin Copeland for a second-half try while also putting in a brilliant try-saving tackle on Ospreys’ Tom Grabham. To make it even better, his parents and brother and sister were in the crowd.
Sweetnam, who turns 23 in May, admits he was a late starter to rugby, but he’s keen to make up for lost time.
‘It’s a learning process for me because I was late starting in rugby,’ he explained.
‘I didn’t starting playing until I was in fourth year in school (Bandon Grammar School). I used to play 10 in school. I’ve moved to full back and the wing since so they’re new positions with different lines so it’s about learning as much as I can about those positions. It’s a learning process.
‘The Munster Academy was a great way for me to learn and to develop. I was only 82 kilos when I joined the Academy so physically I needed to develop. I didn’t play on the wings that often either so I needed to learn the lines as well, so to get my first start against Zebre makes it all worthwhile.’
He added: ‘There is nothing better than match practice. That’s the best way for me to learn and to improve. I want to play as much as I can and learn as much as I can because I still feel there’s a lot more to come.’
Munster also feels there’s more to come from Sweetnam as he signed a two-year contract with the province last year, which moved him to development status for 2015/16 and onto a full contract for 2016/17.
Sweetnam has come a long way from the raw 19-year-old Cork hurler that took his place in the Munster Academy for the start of the 2012/13 season.
The former Dunmanway RFC emerging star, who helped Bandon Grammar School win three Mungret Cups, impressed with the Munster U18 schools’ team, and Munster U19 and U20, which led to a call from the Munster Academy.
‘When I was offered a three-year Munster Academy contract, it was too good an opportunity to turn down. I had to give it a go. I knew I would regret it if I didn’t take it,’ Sweetnam said.
On the international front, he represented Ireland in the 2013 U20 Six Nations, playing four times, while he scored two tries against Fiji in the U20 Junior World Cup in France that same year. His Munster A debut also arrived in 2013, against Plymouth Albion in the B&1 Cup.
‘I came into Munster at 82 kilos and I am 93 kilos now so that is a big change. I knew coming in that I needed to bulk up and I’ve done it the right way. I have developed physically, but I’ve also developed in how I approach training since I joined Munster, in terms of dieting, nutrition, what I eat, how I train, how often I train, what’s best for me,’ explained Sweetnam, who lives in Cork City with teammate Peter McCabe, but is also a regular visitor home to Dunmanway.
Comfortable anywhere in the back line, Sweetnam’s pace and good hands under a high ball make him an attractive option: ‘Full back would be my favourite position – that’s where you need to be very vocal. You need to learn on the wing first and then progress to full back further down the line.’
And progress is the name of the game for the former Doheny hurler, who is conscious that he needs to make an impression on the Munster management, to show them that he can be relied on when the big games come around.
‘Wingers don’t have that long of a career. It wouldn’t be as long as second rows so I need to push on and make the most of it. This season is flying by; it’s been the fastest yet,’ Sweetnam said.
‘It’s a cliché, I know, but for someone in my position and where I am coming from, I have to take every game as it comes. There will be fellas away on international duty so when I am given an opportunity, I need to make it count.
‘Hopefully, if I work hard I can put myself in (Anthony) Foley’s thoughts so when the time comes they won’t be scared to put me in.’
If he keeps on his current upward trajectory, then the future looks bright for this rarest of West Cork sporting exports – a Munster rugby player.