Wednesday 7 December 2016

Convert Sweetnam finding his feet and thrilling Thomond crowd

Published 29/09/2016 | 02:30

Darren Sweetnam. Photo: Sportsfile
Darren Sweetnam. Photo: Sportsfile

These are the days that Darren Sweetnam was thinking of when he quit the Cork hurling panel to pursue a career in rugby.

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Sure, the lure of professionalism was a draw but after a summer of big days in the Munster Championship and an All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park, it wasn't easy to walk away.

In 2012, the Dunmanway native was a regular for the Rebels and swapped it all for a place at the back of the queue.

A place in the Academy promises much, but to get to the first team there is a lot of work to be done and much of it away from the spotlight.

So, he went from playing in front of almost 50,000 on Jones' Road to the small crowds of the All-Ireland League and British and Irish Cup, upskilling as he went and putting on bulk where he could.

It wasn't an easy decision for the multi-talented youngster who represented Ireland in badminton and hockey while a student at Bandon Grammar, but it has proved to be the right one now that he is running out at Thomond Park on a regular basis.

Anthony Foley handed the 23-year-old a run in the side towards the end of last season and Rassie Erasmus has rewarded his form with a start in every game he's taken charge of so far.

It's easy to see why, the pacy winger brings a contagious energy to the game and takes on his man every time he gets the ball. Munster's attack has been slow to get going under their new coach, but the man in the No 14 jersey has made things happen.

This weekend against Zebre marks the end of phase one of the season, the more serious stuff begins against Leinster on Saturday week and Europe is not far away. Sweetnam is doing everything in his power to keep his place and move away from the 'former Cork hurler' to be known as a rugby player of some repute. "Yerra, I'll never get sick of it," he said of the tag.

"It'll probably follow me forever, especially living in Cork when hurling's everything, they'll never forget it I suppose. I'm working my way slowly. Obviously, I played a few games last year so it's nice to build on that, play a few games and make my name as Darren the rugby player."

The decision to pursue the professional game came after plenty of soul-searching and a long discussion with Greig Oliver who was over Munster's U-20s. The following year, as Sweetnam was learning his trade, his former Cork team-mates came within a late equaliser of an All-Ireland medal against Clare but while it wasn't easy, he didn't waver.

"It was tough, it was such a buzz with the Cork hurlers to play in front of that crowd and then I was playing AIL, but I knew I was just starting off and it would be worth it in the long run," he said. "It's definitely worth it now. I needed that. I went to Bandon Grammar, it's only a 'B' school so I was fairly raw. The Academy is very good, it develops you and I needed it at the time to develop physically as well and my understanding of the game too. That helped.

"The aerial skills from hurling definitely help, I played football as well so that definitely transfers on to the rugby pitch. Trying to make space for yourself, use your feet, that helps as well. I came into the academy at 79kg, I'm playing at 93kg now and that's a big progression. So, I've obviously gotten bigger and stronger and that's very important against the size of lads we face."

The learning curve continues. Two weeks ago in Newport, he crossed the line for a try but lost control of the ball in the in-goal area. Cian Bohane saved his bacon by pouncing on the loose ball.

"Don't talk to me! I owe him my life," he said of his mortification. "I got some shock, thank God he was there. They didn't even show it in the review, to be honest. They knew I'd learnt my lesson."

Erasmus confirmed that new signing Jaco Taute will be available to face the Italians at Thomond, while Tommy O'Donnell is also in the frame to return after recovering from concussion. Peter O'Mahony and Simon Zebo are also in line for a return.

Irish Independent

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