THE opportunity to work under Ronan O’Gara was one of the main reasons Darren Sweetnam signed for La Rochelle last month.
As much as it was a wrench to leave Munster, the Dunmanway man was out of contract this summer so he needed to take control of his future.
Knowing that Munster great O’Gara, head coach at La Rochelle, wanted to bring him to the French club made Sweetnam’s decision easier.
‘On one side I was sad to be leaving Munster but on the other side this is a massive opportunity, and to be able to work with Rog as well, I couldn’t really turn it down,’ Sweetnam told this week’s Star Sport Podcast.
‘He was a hero of mine growing up and he would have been one of the main reasons I actually got into rugby so to be able to work with him and learn from him is an opportunity that I couldn’t refuse.
‘Since I have come over he had been so welcoming, he has had me over to his house to meet his family.
‘It was a tough decision because I had been at Munster since 2012 and I never really saw it ending this early, but I didn’t have anything at the end of the season anyway so when Rog rang me, I said ya.’
It was a phone call from O’Gara to Sweetnam that ignited the move – and it was then that the La Rochelle boss outlined his plan to the West Cork man and told him what he wanted.
‘He just said to have a go, don’t worry about the detail, just back myself, and that it’s a great opportunity to play very attractive rugby,’ Sweetnam says.
‘Hopefully I will see a lot more ball, and a lot more ball in space as well which is really exciting. You even get glimpses of that in training, we play with a lot more width then what we might have seen in Munster so I’m really looking forward to it.’
The former Munster winger signed for La Rochelle as medical cover until the end of the season, but the hope is that he will do enough before then to impress the club and earn a contract for next season or that another club will snap him up.
‘If I go well there might be something here or else some other club might pick me up. It’s risky but then again it’s not either because I didn’t have anything back home. Hopefully, I can stay on here, it’s an incredible club,’ he says.
Sweetnam came off the bench to make his La Rochelle debut last Saturday night as they beat Lyon 38-23 in the Top 14 to keep their title push alive. It was his first taste of Top 14 action and he feels the league and La Rochelle’s style will suit him.
‘Hopefully I will get the ball with a bit more time and a bit more space, and get the opportunity to take on guys one on one – and that’s what every winger wants. Hopefully I get those opportunities ahead,’ Sweetnam says.
‘In the Top 14 they focus more on keeping the ball alive, there are a lot of islanders over here as well who grew us practising off-loading after contact, so that suits my game as well. I am really excited to get stuck into things and to play heads-up rugby, and more unstructured, and hopefully that will suit me more.’
Sweetnam is also a man on a mission – he wants to show that he’s still good enough to cut it at the highest level.
‘100 per cent, I feel like I have a point to prove and show that I still am capable of playing at this top level,’ says the 27-year-old who played 92 times for Munster and who also earned three Ireland caps.
‘It gives me a bit of confidence that Rog brought me over when La Rochelle are going so well and I’m coming over at a very important part of the season. Hopefully, I can show that on the pitch now and push on, and show people what I am still capable of.
‘I am still young. I still, hopefully, have a good few more years in professional rugby. I just need to keep working hard and see what happens.’
Sweetnam’s move from Munster to La Rochelle all happened very fast. It was a whirlwind, he says. From the initial phone call with O’Gara, days later Sweetnam was clearing out his Munster locker and heading to France. He is settling in well. La Rochelle have set him up with an apartment in the city and a car, as well as weekly French lessons.
The last of the Leaving Cert French he remembers from Bandon Grammar needs to be polished up, he laughs.
‘It’s been an easier transition than I thought it would be,’ Sweetnam says.
‘The only thing is getting a handle on my French, the language barrier is the hardest thing because all the coaching and all the chat on the pitch is in French, I just need to get my head around that but I’ll get there eventually.
‘The club has a French teacher so I’m doing lessons once a week with him. To be fair, I can do all the greetings, the bonjours and ca vas, but there’s not much more after that.’
Sweetnam wants to do his talking on the pitch between now and the end of the campaign – and if he does that, he hopes to earn himself a contract with La Rochelle for next season and more time to work under O’Gara.