'I didn't have Joe's number - I thought it was the lads pranking me' - Darren Sweetnam on Ireland call-up
The Big Interview: Darren Sweetnam
Published 28/10/2016 | 02:30
Raw, desperate grief swept through the rugby community all over Ireland last week. That was surely the toughest time that Munster Rugby has ever had to experience.
But collectively they pulled together and paid the most poignant tribute to Anthony 'Axel' Foley in Thomond Park on Saturday.
Tears were shed on and off the field, as the players and management paid their final respects, just over 24 hours after the great No 8 was laid to rest in his native Killaloe.
Many people were shocked when they heard that the Champions Cup fixture against Glasgow Warriors was going ahead, but deep down everyone within the Munster rugby fraternity knew it was the right thing to do.
The ultimate competitor was given the ultimate send-off, and Munster thrashed Glasgow 38-17 in their most complete European display since the days that Foley was the driving force leading them forward on the park.
Afterwards, the players were still pumped when they met up with Axel's former team-mates and they swapped stories of seasons past. And for the younger members of panel, these memories will have impacted them the most.
Darren Sweetnam is one of the new wave of talent, who got his first opportunity under Axel two seasons ago. So much has changed in his life since then, and just a couple of weeks ago he was in Carton House living out his dreams at an Ireland training camp.
Axel was a huge guiding presence along the way, and it's fitting that last weekend's historic victory over the Warriors was Sweetnam's European bow, and it will boost his confidence immeasurably.
"It's massive for us to do well in Europe. Europe is where every club wants to put their best foot forward," he says. "It's going to be a difficult group but that's where you want to be, playing against the world's best and I am excited for the challenge.
"At the start we aim to get out of the group stages but it is a tough group and a very challenging task. We are in a transition stage and we would be delighted to get out of the group but we have so much confidence now and we know we can build on this."
The 23-year-old Corkonian has played 17 times for Munster and scored two tries since he made his debut under Foley in the 2014-15 season.
Sweetnam has been a revelation this term. His versatility allows him to play anywhere in the back-three, and his work-rate and endeavour have helped him hone his skills off the pitch in training.
His off-loading is one of the aspects of his game that make him so dangerous in broken play, and that is something he attributes to all of the coaches, especially his former mentor Foley.
"Axel and Rassie Erasmus and Felix Jones have always been encouraging us to do off-loading and that is perfect for my style of rugby," he explains.
"I like to get my hands through contact and have people running off me, I like to get those off-loads away. So it's definitely something to work on. I like to keep the game flowing and putting guys through."
The former Cork hurler lives with fellow Rebel youngster Peter McCabe in Castletroy, Limerick. Sweetnam made the move north with the new high performance centre opening and he is enjoying the new set-up.
"It's nice to have the one centre because we are all together, we are training together all the time. So it's good for team bonding and that helps especially now," he says.
"I am very happy with how it's going. At the start of the season I was just trying to progress from last year but I am happy with the games I have played now.
"A massive goal of mine was to play against Leinster in the Aviva and that was nice as well."
The former Ireland U-20 star has had a roller-coaster of emotions in recent weeks, and he had to come from a huge high to the lowest part of his career so far.
Losing a close friend was a huge blow but together with the rest of Munster Rugby, they will fight on together and look to channel their passion into their European and Pro12 campaigns.
Sweetnam is also on the brink of his first international cap after he was called up to a training session by Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt on October 2.
It was a huge step forward in his career to be pitted against the top players in his country, even if it was just for those few sessions. He learned a lot at Carton House, but he couldn't believe he got the call-up in the first place.
"I didn't have his number. He rang me twice, I had two missed calls and I thought it was the lads pranking me. So I texted around looking for his number.
"I texted Rory Scannell and he sent me on that number and it was Joe Schmidt so I rang him back straight away," he says. "He just said he was keen for me to come into camp and get up as soon as possible. I got in my car as fast as I could and hit the road.
"It was at about 1.30pm. I had plans, I was in Limerick luckily. I would usually go home at the weekends but I stayed up that week and it started at 3.30 so I missed the first meeting and got in there at about 4.20.
"It was hard to describe, my heart was flying. It was the last thing I was expecting on a Sunday. I was thrilled, I rang my dad straight away. Every kid growing up, that's their dream to be up there training with the best in the country so it was very exciting."