MUNSTER RUGBY OWE Greig Oliver a debt of gratitude when it comes to Darren Sweetnam.
The 23-year-old lines out on the right wing for the province this evening in their Champions Cup quarter-final against Toulouse in Thomond Park [KO 5.45pm, Sky Sports 2], but he could easily have been readying himself for the Cork hurlers’ League quarter-final against Limerick in Páirc Uí Rinn tomorrow.
Sweetnam celebrates his try against the Maori All Blacks in November. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
Oliver, now an elite player development officer for Munster, was the province’s U20 coach back in 2012 when Sweetnam decided he was going to walk away from rugby.
The Dunmanway man had already featured for Cork at senior level, scoring a point in the All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Galway in Croke Park that year and, when the balancing act all came to a head, he felt his path was brighter in hurling.
“I was getting massages all the time on my calves, they were really tight – because Cork didn’t know at the time that I was playing rugby with Munster,” recalls Sweetnam.
Ger Cunningham, part of the Cork management team, asked Sweetnam why a young man like himself needed so many massages and the truth came out.
“They were telling me to choose, saying, ‘It’s very hard, you’re up against the best inter-country players in Ireland, you need to be at your best. You can’t be playing with sore calves. It would be wise if you made a choice between the sports.’”
Sweetnam went back to the Munster U20s and told them he would be packing it in, but with the Cork man having featured so impressively in the inter-provincial series, the province couldn’t give up without a fight.
“It was a risk with rugby at that stage because I was still only U20, there was no guarantee,” says Sweetnam. “But then I played the U20s campaign and then I got offered an academy contract. I just didn’t know what to do.
“I had just given up rugby, having rang the Munster U20 manager, Graham Burns, and told him, but Greig called me the next day and asked me and my Dad to meet him one more time. I went and met him in Cork Airport Hotel and he persuaded me to stay on.”
Sweetnam in action against Waterford in 2012. Source: Cathal Noonan
What was said?
“Greig just said, ‘I think you have great talent, you can go a long way in the game.’ I went home and weighed up the options.”
Sweetnam’s father, Lesley, initially felt his son should continue with hurling, but the lure of potentially advancing onto a professional contract with Munster was too hard to resist.
“I was 19 and it was a big decision, but I’m delighted I made it.”
The rest hasn’t quite been history. While Sweetnam went on to play for the Ireland U20s in 2013 and has always been highly-rated within Munster, he has had to bide his time.
He was playing in the British and Irish Cup two years ago. There were doubts, Sweetnam admits.
“There were times, definitely. I think it was two years ago that I was on the bench for the As, so there were times where I was thinking, ‘Have I made the right decision?’
“I think you just keep your head down, work hard and just hope. You need to get one opportunity and if you do it right, the coaches will trust you again. Patience is massive.”
Sweetnam has taken each opportunity handed to him by Rassie Erasmus this season and looks a certainty to be capped by Ireland in the near future if he can continue at his current rate of development.
Hurling and football were Sweetnam’s first sporting loves – he excelled with Dohenys GAA club – but his first rugby experiences came with Dunmanway RFC, where his father had played and was a coach.
Sweetnam playing for Munster ‘A’ in 2013. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
“It was U12s and I only played a season of that,” says Sweetnam. “I can actually remember the first training session I turned up at – there was me, my Dad and my neighbour. That was it!
“That’s where I started off, only playing around really. It wasn’t my first love or anything.”
The Sweetnams are sporting people through and through. Darren’s father played rugby during his time at Bandon Grammar School and with Dunmanway, while the Munster wing’s older bother, Clinton, has been capped by Ireland in hockey.
When Sweetnam moved to Bandon Grammar himself, the hurling and football continued, but he also excelled at hockey and badminton – representing Ireland in both at underage levels.
“Bandon was a ‘B’ school back then, so we didn’t take rugby too seriously,” says Sweetnam. “Hockey would have been the first love in school.”
Sweetnam played rugby throughout his six years in Bandon, however, starring as a goal-kicking out-half for three years at senior level and learning from the coaching duo of James and Denis Collins.
Bandon won three Mungret Cups in a row and Sweetnam did enough to earn Munster U18 and U19 honours.
In sixth year, he was playing hockey and rugby with the Grammar, while at the same time juggling football and hurling with Dohenys, and also breaking into the Cork senior set-up.
“My studies were out the back door anyway!” he says with a laugh. “I owe a lot to my parents, they used to drive me up and down the country.”
Sweetnam signs autographs at Bandon RFC this year. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO
While he ended up opting for rugby over hurling, the experiences Sweetnam had in 2012 were invaluable in the process of maturing, as a person and a sportsman.
Though he was preparing for his Leaving Cert as an 18-year-old, Sweetnam was also trying to force his way into Cork manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s plans and achieved that impressively.
“I’d be kind of a shy guy, so it was a big deal for me going into the dressing room with the Cork seniors where I didn’t know anyone, so that maybe helped me to grow up a bit faster. I had to.
“There were around 63,000 people there for the semi-final against Galway. That was incredible and it did help a little bit. But then rugby is totally different, especially because if you make one mistake in rugby it can result in a try. Whereas if you make a mistake in hurling, it might not be a score.”
Nonetheless, the varied sporting background has helped in Sweetnam’s rugby career.
“I think that’s the reason my parents put me into everything when I was younger, just to get different skills from each sport,” says Sweetnam, who extended his Munster contract until 2019 earlier this year.
“The high ball is definitely helped me, from the hurling and football, where it’s massive. I think that has transferred a bit into the rugby. Using your feet to get space as well, that’s helped.”
Sweetnam is now five years into his career with the Munster set-up, having come through the academy patiently, building himself up as an athlete each season as he also played club rugby with UCC, Dolphin, and Cork Con.
He has transformed from a lean 80kg midfielder on the hurling pitch in 2012 to an explosive and agile 93kg wing today.
Sweetnam has always been an exhilarating presence in attack and his attitude in contact has never been anything less than committed, but he says he has had to learn most about the sport without the ball.
Sweetnam makes a sensational double tackle against Glasgow this season.
“My defence was probably the weakest point of my game,” says the Cork man. “[Former defence coach] Ian Costello did a lot of work with me last season and now Jacques Nienaber has obviously been a great help.
“I’ve been doing a lot of one-on-ones after training, which has helped with my positioning and that’s made a big difference.
“Having played out-half in school, wing would have been new to me after that. I have been learning that and it involves a lot of video, sitting down with Earlsie and Zeebs and Felix [Jones], they’re a great help.
“You’re talking through what read you could have made, whether to come out of the line, all that. It’s grand for the props having a man either side, but we’re all the way out there on our own!”
Sweetnam has started 19 games this season for Munster, scoring three tries and showing notable improvement in his defensive game. His aerial ability has been important for the province too, and Ireland boss Joe Schmidt has been following with interest.
The Munster wing was called up to Ireland’s training squad for the first time on very short notice last October, and couldn’t quite believe that it was Schmidt contacting him.
“He rang me but I thought it was one of the lads pranking me, so I didn’t answer,” says Sweetnam. “Then he texts me and I was thinking, ‘Oh, this is definitely the lads,’ because it was after the Zebre game when I got man of the match, so I was sure it was the lads having a joke.
“I rang the number back, I didn’t have the number, and he was like, ‘This is Joe, I’d like you to come into camp.’ I was very nervous, I rang my Dad on the way up in the car, telling him Joe had asked me to come up to camp. It was a great experience, very intense.
“I was very nervous being up there with all the best players in the country, but it was a great experience, I loved it.”
Sweetnam with Ireland at Carton House. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO
Sweetnam was back for a second camp soon in November, and explains how he had to spend much of his time in front of the computers learning Ireland’s playbook as quickly as possible.
A knee injury suffered during the clash with Leinster on Stephen’s Day was badly timed for Sweetnam, however, and ruined his chances of featuring in the Six Nations.
It transpired that his Munster team-mate, Andrew Conway, was capped off the bench in the final clash of the championship with England, acknowledging afterwards that it probably would have been Sweetnam in his boots but for that injury.
Schmidt, however, did keep in contact with the Cork man as he recovered
“Joe was actually onto me during the Six Nations, just saying, ‘You’re not too far away, just keep doing what you’re doing.’ He gives you work-ons and stuff.”
Ireland’s tour to the USA and Japan in June looks like it could to provide Sweetnam with his shot at Test rugby.
“You never really think of it, you just let it happen. If it comes, it comes. Obviously, it’s everyone’s dream to play for their country and be up there with the best, so I just keep concentrating on the week in, week out with Munster and hope that will come.”
And Sweetnam is excelling doing so, thriving under the coaching of Erasmus, Nienaber, Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones, who is proving an important part of the wing’s development as the backs and skills specialist.
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“Felix was a fellow back three player so he’s great for me, because he has so much knowledge of the back three,” says Sweetnam. “That man works so hard. I’d say he doesn’t sleep! He is just so prepared.
Sweetnam scored against the Maori All Blacks in November.
“We’d finish our matches at the weekend and he’d be straight away looking at videos of the next week, where we can attack them. The man works so hard. He was the ultimate professional when he was a player, so it’s transferred into his coaching. The role was perfect for him.”
Head coach Erasmus, meanwhile, has proved to be the ideal man to encourage Sweetnam’s daring instincts in attacking, particularly around his excellent offloading game.
Nerves about selection, surprise at Schmidt having contacted him, his shy nature – it’s clear that Sweetnam’s confidence is still only growing as he makes an impact with Munster.
But Erasmus’ philosophy is getting the best out of Sweetnam’s character.
“I think the biggest thing with Rassie is that even if you make a mistake, he’s always on about the battles. You might win some, you might lose some. If you lose some, just smile about it and say, ‘He won there, I might get him back next time.’
“That helps because you play with no fear.
“You’re not scared to try things, offloads and stuff, which I think is massive. It’s good for me as a wing, you can express yourself.”
15. Simon Zebo
14. Darren Sweetnam
13. Jaco Taute
12. Rory Scannell
11. Keith Earls
10. Tyler Bleyendaal
9. Conor Murray
1. Dave Kilcoyne
2. Niall Scannell
3. John Ryan
4. Donnacha Ryan
5. Billy Holland
6. Peter O’Mahony (captain)
7. Tommy O’Donnell
8. CJ Stander
16. Rhys Marshall
17. James Cronin
18. Stephen Archer
19. Dave O’Callaghan
20. Jack O’Donoghue
21. Duncan Williams
22. Francis Saili
23. Andrew Conway
15. Maxime Médard
14. Yoann Huget
13. Gaël Fickou
12. Florian Fritz
11. Paul Perez
10. Jean-Marc Doussain
9. Sébastien Bézy
1. Cyril Baille
2. Leonardo Ghiraldini
3. Census Johnston
4. Richie Gray
5. Yoann Maestri
6. Thierry Dusautoir (captain)
7. Yacouba Camara
8. François Cros
16. Julien Marchand
17. Gurthrö Steenkamp
18. Dorian Aldegheri
19. Tala Gray
20. Piula Fa’asalele
21. Joe Tekori
22. Luke McAlister
23. Arthur Bonneval
Referee: JP Doyle [RFU].
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