ONE stat that jumped out in Munster Rugby’s press release last Monday – that confirmed Darren Sweetnam had left the province – is that he is only 27 years old.
For some reason I always thought he was older, probably because he has been in the headlines for so many years, but at 27, and he doesn’t turn 28 until May, the Dunmanway man has his best days still ahead of him.
Former Munster women’s player and head coach Laura Guest agrees, as she told this week’s Star Sport Podcast.
‘At 27 he is only just beginning to come into his peak. For me he is a very similar player to Keith Earls – a similar size, he has the foot work, the aerial prowess and the defensive abilities of Earls – and you look at him and he is in the form of his life now at 33. Hopefully Darren can mirror that,’ the Clonakilty woman says.
Sweetnam still has a lot to offer – and he also has a point to prove. He asked to be released from his Munster contract early so he could link up with La Rochelle in France on a short-term deal as injury cover.
It wouldn’t have been easy to cut ties with Munster, but with no new contract on the way and his current deal expiring in the summer, Sweetnam has made a smart move by joining La Rochelle on a deal that runs to the end of the season.
Instead of not getting a look-in at Munster where his time was up, he now has a great opportunity to put himself in the shop window by impressing at La Rochelle. If this short stint goes well, they might offer him a longer deal – and head coach Ronan O’Gara said as much to the Irish Examiner this week.
‘Bringing in Darren to La Rochelle as emergency cover in our backs is a really good signing for us. It’s a totally serious proposition for us and hopefully for Darren,’ O’Gara said.
‘In the wake of the loss to a cruciate of Jeremy Sinzelle, we are down to the bare bones. Darren is out of contract shortly with Munster, so it’s a potential win-win for both parties.
‘It’s a three-month deal and if he proves his worth, he will be kept, so the ball is in his court. I’ve seldom seen a club leave a player go if he’s adding real value to the group, have you?’
The prospect of a longer deal is the golden carrot dangling in front of Sweetnam right now and he will be a man on a mission to show how good he is, given he didn’t get that opportunity at Munster this season.
He had fallen down the pecking order in Munster and had been squeezed out in an area where the province is well stacked. Keith Earls. Andrew Daly. Shane Daly. Mike Haley. Liam Coombes. Matt Gallagher. Calvin Nash. Munster have plenty of options in the back three and Sweetnam had found his opportunities limited in recent seasons.
An injury-riddled 2019/20 campaign didn’t help either, as he suffered three hamstring tears in quick succession. Then, just when he was back feeling fit and strong last season and building a bit of momentum in the PRO14, the pandemic struck and stopped him in his tracks.
Sweetnam used the lockdown to get his body in its best possible shape. A weak right glute had been pinpointed as the source of his hamstring troubles and a bulging disc in his lower back didn’t help either, but during the first lockdown he gave his body a break. He felt good, ready to attack the new season and remind everyone just how good he is; remember, he won three Ireland caps under Joe Schmidt. But he found his opportunities restricted.
‘Here’s a truth for you; Darren Sweetnam is too good a player to be hanging around deep in a depth chart,’ Tom Savage of Three Red Kings wrote in the Star last month.
‘He hasn’t had the minutes he’d probably have wanted this season or last. He’s played some A rugby and has mainly seen time during the long test window stretch.’
With no new contract in the offing Sweetnam has made a smart move by joining La Rochelle in France for the next few months. This is the chance to get up and running again, to kick-start his career. There’s not a lot of mileage on the clock either and he’ll be eager to get out on the pitch and impress La Rochelle and other suitors who rate the West Cork man.
‘This really is a great opportunity for him. He gets a bit of control over his chance of getting a new contract with some club for next season,’ Laura Guest adds.
Sweetnam is the trailblazer in the current rise of West Cork rugby. He’s the former Dohenys and Cork hurler who followed the path of professional sport when he joined Munster in 2012, and he showed young kids all around West Cork that playing for Munster is an achievable ambition, not a fanciful dream. Now, again, he’s a trailblazer, as he swaps Thomond Park and the PRO14 for La Rochelle and the Top 14.
Sweetnam’s Munster days might be behind him – and with 92 appearances and 22 tries, he leaves a lot of great memories – but maybe his best days lie ahead.
He needs to make the most of his big chance with La Rochelle.