TOM SAVAGE explains the huge importance of Darren Sweetnam in the rise of West Cork rugby
IT’S a bit of a meme at this stage but I actually did see Darren Sweetnam hurling for Dohenys before he decided to take an academy contract with Munster Rugby.
Now I don’t know much about hurling outside of knowing to shout “scooorrrrrreeeee boy” every now and then after a long-range point to keep Hurling People™ from getting suspicious but even I could tell he was good, really good. It just looked easier for him.
When I saw him he was playing in the new pitch in St Mary’s, Enniskeane. He was a natural. I think he came off the bench for Cork in an All-Ireland semi-final in Croke Park later that year. He’s played in a lot more stadiums before and since.
In 2012, he told Cork GAA that he was going to make a go of it as a professional rugby player after a conversation with Munster’s Grieg Oliver and he set off on a rugby career that would be transformative for both himself and others. It didn’t come easy – his path to the senior set up was a gradual process of putting on the size that you need to be a winger at the elite level. In some ways, it was a stab in the dark.
There was no pathway to show Sweetnam how a guy from West Cork could make it as a pro rugby player because it hadn’t been done to that point. You would see plenty of guys from Cork city, Limerick, Tipperary – even Kerry – but nobody from the south-west of the Aquaduct. Sure, former fullback and centre Denis Hurley lived in Ballineen for the first 12 months of his life before he and his family emigrated but West Cork was GAA country first and foremost.
It still is GAA country, don’t get me wrong, but Sweetnam showed fellas that there was a path to being a professional athlete. Just three years after signing that academy deal, Sweetnam signed a senior contract at Munster for the first time.
I don’t know much about Sweetnam the hurler beyond what I saw back near the start of the last decade. I’ll tell you what I do know, though, and it’s this; if it wasn’t for Darren Sweetnam, the idea of a West Cork Mafia in Munster Rugby would probably be a pipe dream. A road for someone else to pave. All the players who have come from below the Aquaduct since – the Wycherley brothers, the Coombes cousins, Hodnett, Crowley, Buckley, French – and the ones yet to come (and there’s a few heavy hitters coming, let me tell you) are driving on a road that Sweetnam paved.
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.
His last season of regular rugby for Munster was back in 2018/19. He’s been unlucky with injury, for sure, and he’s playing in one of the most heavily congested places in the Munster depth chart. As skilled, aerially adept and athletic as Sweetnam is, he’s often been contesting with Andrew Conway and Keith Earls – no easy task. He’s in a difficult spot at the moment. He’s a senior player at this stage but he finds himself with Conway and Earls ahead of him in the depth chart still and contending with young guys like Shane Daly – who is currently circling around the international scene – Calvin Nash, Seán French, Matt Gallagher and Liam Coombes.
Here’s a truth for you; Darren Sweetnam is too good a player to be hanging around deep in a depth chart. The order at Munster is the order – they’re all good players, very good players – but if you’re a guy like Sweetnam who’s coming to the end of your contract in the next few months, you’re faced with a decision. Whatever decision he makes – stay at Munster or test the market elsewhere – Sweetnam is a guy who has nothing to prove. He’s been a full-time professional since 2015, he’s got his international cap and he’s played in some massive moments.
When I think back to the Axel game against Glasgow in 2016, I remember a few key moments. The minute’s silence before the game, Tyler Bleyendaal’s try, Jaco Taute beating his chest and Darren Sweetnam, chasing down what looked like a lost cause up until it wasn’t. Glasgow broke up the field when Munster were down a man (two men, really) and it looked like it was going to be a try under the posts.
The air went out of the stadium a little.
Until Sweetnam started to pull into view of the breaking runner. The crowd picked up his run with one of those interested collective murmurs that only a large, focused crowd can create. He got a little closer to the Glasgow player. The crowd got louder. He got closer again. The crowd began to really get loud until Sweetnam managed to scrag the runner and send him to the floor. The crowd roared him on, but Sweetnam wasn’t done. The Glasgow player offloaded the ball to one of his buddies and Sweetnam tackled that guy too for good measure. The crowd cheered like it was a try and it was as loud as any other moment on that momentous day.
Glasgow scored a few minutes later but that moment was an example of Sweetnam’s mentality. He wasn’t letting Glasgow pick up an easy score. Not on that day. Not any day really. That’s just not the player he is.
As of the time of writing, Sweetnam’s contract status at Munster remains unknown. I don’t know where he’ll be playing his rugby next season but wherever he’s playing, he’ll leave a legacy as the man who showed West Cork what was possible as a professional athlete in Ireland if you were good enough, tough enough and driven enough. That’s Darren Sweetnam and he’s not halfway done showing those qualities yet.
- Tom Savage is editor of the Three Red Kings website.