IF Darren Sweetnam had opted for hurling over rugby, Cork would have ended their wait for an All-Ireland senior hurling title insists the Dunmanway man’s former club manager, Dave O’Leary.
That’s a bold statement to make, but O’Leary won’t budge on it. In fact, he’s quite insistent.
‘If Darren didn’t go down the rugby path and if he was still playing with Cork, I guarantee you that Patrick Horgan would have an All-Ireland medal by now. That is one bet that I wouldn’t be afraid to put on,’ O’Leary says.
So, Sweetnam was that good?
‘He was better than good, he was exceptional.’
O’Leary coached Sweetnam from underage up to junior level and watched him develop and improve with the Dohenys. He always stood out, O’Leary explains.
‘His reading of the game, his fielding of the ball, his first touch, he had it all. He has that natural ability,’ O’Leary says.
‘Darren had a fierce keen eye, he could read the game even at a young age, you’d see him at U16 level falling back and he could predict whether the ball was going to fall left or right.
‘I watch Patrick Horgan, how he is two steps ahead of everyone else, how he is on the ball while his back is still turning around. Darren has that same natural ability, he could flick that ball and he already had a step made on his opposition.’
Naturally, Sweetnam was Dohenys go-to man even when he was a teenager. When he finished up with his home GAA club and signed a professional rugby contract with Munster, he was just 19 years old, but he was already Dohenys’ leader. He assumed the mantle by his actions on the pitch. Quiet off the field, he dominated on it.
It’s a regret of O’Leary that Sweetnam didn’t win a Carbery junior A hurling championship with the Dohenys. They came close, but lost three finals in a row (2010 to ’12) and when they did eventually break that door down in 2013 Sweetnam had signed for Munster Rugby.
He was 17 years old when he scored 0-11 for Dohenys as they lost to Mathúnas in the 2010 final. Twelve months later Sweetnam scored 0-8 when Dohenys lost the Carbery JAHC decider against St Oliver Plunkett’s. In 2012, he finished the campaign with 1-32, but Dohenys lost at the final stage again, this time to Clonakilty. He was their stand-out player, top scorer and driving force, all while he was a teenager.
‘That’s one of the regrets I have, that we didn’t win a junior A with the Dohenys before he went to play rugby. I was involved in three finals and we lost all three,’ O’Leary says, but by then Sweetnam was already a Cork minor and U21, and on the senior radar. He was 18 years old and in his Leaving Cert year at Bandon Grammar School when he made his senior debut against Waterford in the national league.
Sweetnam then came on as a 46th-minute sub in the August 2012 All-Ireland senior hurling semi-final defeat against Galway at Croke Park. The Dunmanway teenager (19) was on the big stage. That was his last hurling game for Cork, however. On October 1st, 2012, just after the Carbery JAHC final loss, Munster Rugby announced that Sweetnam had accepted a development contract. His GAA days were over. Cork manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy said afterwards, ‘it’s tough to lose a player like that’ and ‘he looked to have huge potential for us.’ Dave O’Leary in Dohenys feels the same.
‘I’m in West Cork 20 years and I would say that Cork’s two biggest failures were letting Setanta (Ó hAilpín) and Darren go because Cork hurling suffered. That’s how highly I would rate them,’ O’Leary says.
‘Look at the level of players out there at the moment, the big stars with the different counties, like Noel McGrath with Waterford – when he is on his game, he is exceptional. Darren had that ability. He was good for a short period of time so imagine if he had five, six, seven years of playing at the highest level with Cork, you couldn’t predict what was possible for him.’
If – and impossible to predict, we know – Sweetnam stuck with hurling, he would be 27 years old now and in the prime of his career. As a package deal, he ticks the boxes.
In a column for The Southern Star earlier this year, Tom Savage, editor of Three Red Kings’ website for Munster rugby fans, highlighted Sweetnam’s rugby abilities: ‘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.’
He had it all as a hurler, too, insists Dave O’Leary.
‘His best position was around centre back or midfield. Well, really, you could play him anywhere, but I think he would have settled in around there,’ O’Leary muses.
‘We’d slot him in full forward for spells at junior level and we wanted him as close to goal as possible, so we’d play him centre forward too. He had it all. Like I said, he was a natural.
‘Darren didn’t need to be coached, he needed to be encouraged so he would express himself. When he came back playing with us after being in with Cork, you could see that he was trying to bring the rest of the players up the field and into the game when maybe he should have been taking his own score, but that wasn’t him because he was a team player.
‘I remember even when he played a couple of games with Cork, I said to him, “You’re feeding the ball to everybody, don’t be afraid to have a cut off it yourself sometimes”. He didn’t want to be seen as greedy but sometimes he could have taken that score himself, he’d lay the ball off, make the run but might not get it back. He was so modest in his game that he didn’t realise the exceptional talent that he had.’
How good could Sweetnam the hurler have become? The truth is we’ll never know. Sweetnam the rugby player has been capped at international level for Ireland and has racked up over 80 appearances for Munster, but in Cork hurling circles he’s still remembered as one that got away.