KIERAN McCARTHY chats to Leslie Sweetnam about his son Darren’s rise from Dunmanway to Ireland
TWENTY years ago, Leslie Sweetnam realised that there was something special about his youngest child.
He’d come home from work after a long day and his three kids – twins Clinton and Rachel, and Darren – would be running around the house, turning it upside down and inside out.
‘They’d be driving me mad,’ Leslie laughs.
He had an idea.
Home is Clounties, a mile and a half outside Dunmanway on the Bantry road, but 20 years ago it was also home to an assault course aimed at wearing three energetic kids out.
‘I used to set up an assault course up and down the hall,’ he explained.
‘Darren’s brother and sister were eight at the time but he would beat them in the assault course, and he was only four!
‘We knew from that, that he had brilliant co-ordination, balance and footwork.’
That very same footwork drew a nod of approval from Ireland manager Joe Schmidt ahead of Sweetnam’s international debut off the bench, as a 74th minute sub in the 38-3 victory against South Africa at the Aviva Stadium earlier this month.
‘He’s pretty calm, he’s got some good footwork, he knows where the try line is, he finishes well, he’s got some good defensive habits and some that we’ll keep working on. He’s a package that’s interesting,’ Schmidt remarked.
He’s right, Sweetnam certainly is interesting, as is his rise through the ranks to international level with his decision to plump for rugby over Cork hurling well versed at this stage.
But it all started in Dunmanway with his local rugby club with his father, Leslie, as his coach.
‘In a small club like Dunmanway he would stand out,’ Leslie says, having coached Darren from when he was six to when he was 14 years old.
‘He was always well balanced, co-ordinated and always very fast as well; that all made him stand out.’
If Leslie helped teach Darren the ins and outs of rugby in his formative years, then maybe we can trace his speed back to his mother, Kathleen. She wasn’t sporty as a kid but when she was in sixth class, she was the fastest in her national school.
The Sweetnams are a sporting family. Darren’s older brother Clinton is a key player for Bandon Hockey Club’s senior men’s team, back in the fold after a year in Vancouver and who also has an Ireland hockey cap, while Rachel plays with St Mary’s Badminton Club in Dunmanway, as does his mother.
Armed with those sporting genes, his father’s rugby know-how and his mother’s pace, young Darren was onto a winning combination from the start and it was no surprise that he caught the eye playing for Dunmanway Rugby Club.
‘There was an U12 competition between the clubs at the end of the season and one of the years Darren was U12, we got to the final of it,’ Leslie recalls.
‘I remember one moment in a game, Darren was playing outhalf and he threw a cut-out pass past the two centres out to the winger because he saw that there was space out wide. We scored a try off it. You could see then that he had something about him.
‘We didn’t win that game – but that moment stands out.’
To be fair with Darren a lot of moments in a lot of different sports stand out.
There was hockey and badminton and hurling and rugby, each tempting this sports-mad teen during his days at Bandon Grammar School.
He represented Ireland in badminton an U15 level and hockey at U16 level, and Leslie even recalls one week where Darren scored a goal for Ireland against England in underage hockey and also scored a point for Cork in hurling.
‘Not many fellas have done that, I say, it must be some sort of record,’ he beams, adding that his heart jumped out of his chest last Saturday at the Aviva when Darren, on his full international debut, ran in a first-half try against Fiji.
He seems to like scoring against the Fijians, running in two tries for Ireland against them in the U20 World Championship a few years back; another step on the road from the Munster Academy to the very top.
Back to last Saturday evening in the Aviva, again, some fancy footwork created the space and the chance, and like he has been doing with Munster, Darren took his chance with the games only seven minutes old.
He’s raw at this level but he always looked dangerous on the right wing, and it was fantastic to see him take his Munster form to the international stage.
Various player ratings in the national press liked what they saw too. It was 8/10 from the42.ie (‘Pace mixed with a nice step and poised balance makes the Munster wing a potent threat on the right,’ they said), 8/10 from balls.ie (‘Sweetnam has been keeping Andrew Conway out of the Munster team of late and his performance today proved why,’ they praised), and 7/10 from the Irish Independent. That’s a good day’s work on Darren’s first start.
‘The house is gone mad this week,’ Leslie smiles, ‘but he deserves it, he has worked hard.’
He also deserved Lady Luck smiling his way as a hamstring injury to Munster team-mate Keith Earls opened the door into the Ireland squad. Darren got his break and he took it, showing just why, back in February, former Ireland star Brian O’Driscoll tweeted: ‘Big fan of Darren Sweetnam. Think he’ll be capped by the end of the year.’
Joe Schmidt, it seems, is another fan.
‘He seems a real calm, settled sort of guy,’ he said.
‘He doesn’t get ruffled.’
That’s his West Cork upbringing coming to the fore.
He’s modest and shy off the field – but he comes into his own on it.
It’s always been like that, ever since he joined Dunmanway Rugby Club when he was only six years old.
That assault course in his hall at home stood to him then and it’s still standing to him now.