SPARE a thought for Darren Sweetnam’s hamstring that suffered three tears in quick succession last season. It took a battering. His season, as a result, never got going and he was out injured from October until February.
Frustrating is how Sweetnam describes it all. Perhaps that’s an understatement but he won’t reach for the expletives now that he’s feeling fit and strong again. Instead, frustrating is the word he calls on.
‘I was due to play against Cardiff in the PRO14 and on the Thursday before in training I was running through and I felt a little pick in my hamstring. That was the start of it. I got a scan and it showed it was a grade one tear,’ the Dunmanway man explains.
‘Ten days later I had another grade one tear. Then after that I had a grade two tear, so there were three tears in the one hamstring – that was very frustrating. I didn’t really know at the time what was causing them either.
‘When I did the grade two tear, I took my time to get it right and it’s better than ever now.’
The Munster man made his comeback earlier this year, on February 21st, in the PRO14 away to Zebre and scored a try that night. He got another 80 minutes under his belt the following weekend at home to Scarlets.
Just when he was starting to build momentum and piece back-to-back games together, the coronavirus pandemic struck and the league was suspended indefinitely. Guess how Sweetnam felt?
‘It was frustrating, alright,’ he admitted, ‘I only played five games last season. I had just come back and started playing games and then the season was stopped. You work so hard to get back and then there was nothing but I couldn’t do anything about it.’
Instead, he put the extra time away from competitive action to good use. It turned out that his hamstring tears can be traced back to a weaker right glute so he has been working on building that up in recent months. Also a bulging disc in his lower back was adding to his troubles.
‘I’ve had the chance to give my body a break, to get it properly right. I’m feeling good now. There are no niggles,’ he explained.
‘I have been working on strengthening my core, my glutes and my hips, and I think that has helped massively. When I know what has caused it, I know what I need to keep on top of and that should help.’
During the recent lockdown the Dunmanway man stayed in Limerick. He recently bought a house in Castletroy, not too far from Munster Rugby’s training base. He worked hard in his home-made gym, armed with two sets of dumbbells and a bench press. Time was also spent carrying out jobs in the house, while his girlfriend, who works in Scotland, was also there when, ordinarily, she wouldn’t have been. Plenty of silver linings.
‘You just have to look at the positives and it was an opportunity to get stronger and get my body into the best shape I could. Hopefully this season I will get a clean run of it and stay injury free,’ the 27-year-old remarks – and the key for him is to avoid any more injuries, especially as he is heading into the final year of his Munster contract.
‘That would be in the back of your head, alright,’ Sweetnam admits.
‘It will be interesting to see what happens this year with budgets, given the whole Covid situation, but all I can do is concentrate on playing well and hope that will be enough. I’m happy with where I am now after the block of training that we’ve had. My back is feeling great and my hamstrings are feeling great.
‘Last year was a disaster and what I want now is a run of games and a run of fitness and the chance to show what I can do.’
Sweetnam’s potential has never been questioned. Back in February, Tom Savage, editor of The Three Kings, a popular Munster Rugby site, noted that Sweetnam is ‘a supremely talented back three player. 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.’
Injuries have interrupted his progress along the way. Again, hugely frustrating, but he’s in a good place right now and eager to show what he can do.
‘I am looking forward. Ya, I’ve had injuries come at very bad times but I can’t do much about that now. All I can do is get on with it and hope that this season turns out better, that I can drive it on, stay injury free, get a few games under my belt and show what I can do. It’s a big season,’ he says.
Competition is fierce too in the Munster back three but Sweetnam sees a spot there for himself. New boy Matt Gallagher is the latest arrival. There’s also Andrew Conway, Keith Earls, Shane Daly, Calvin Nash, as well as Skibbereen’s Liam Coombes. Sweetnam’s flexibility should stand to him.
‘I like playing on the wing and I like playing 15 as well. I wouldn’t mind a bit more time at 15. I was going to play 15 against Cardiff before I pulled my hamstring in October,’ he notes.
‘At the moment I want to get on the pitch and I will play wherever they want to put me. It’s important to have more than one position so even if you are not starting it might help your position on the bench because you can cover a few positions.’
Sweetnam knows what he can do. Munster know what the West Cork man is capable of. Fans know he has magic in his boots too. What he needs now is to string a number of performances together and remind everyone why he has three Ireland caps to his name.
He’s not even looking at the Ireland set-up now. It’s all about Munster but he has tipped one of his West Cork team-mates for big things.
‘I don’t think it will be too long before Fineen Wycherley breaks into the Ireland team,’ he says.
Hopefully this comes to pass, and Bantry man Wycherley will know he is following in the footsteps of Dunmanway trailblazer Sweetnam who opened the trade route between West Cork and Munster Rugby.
But for now, let’s hope Sweetnam gets back on the pitch and that he won’t have to use the word ‘frustrating’ any time in the near future.