Tuesday 6 December 2016

The Big Interview: Darren Sweetnam - Ex-hurling star on verge of making big impact with oval ball

Multi-talented winger has served apprenticeship and is eager to build on lone Pro12 appearance

Daragh Small

Published 30/10/2015 | 02:30

Darren Sweetnam
Darren Sweetnam

Darren Sweetnam did not bat an eyelid when he was given the opportunity to represent his county in front of 41,537 screaming fans.

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It was the intense atmosphere of an All-Ireland senior hurling semi-final at Croke Park in August 2012. Cork manager Jimmy Barry-Murphy replaced Conor Lehane with his 19-year-old prodigy from Dunmanway in the 46th minute.

Nine minutes later the Doheny's clubman slotted a point as Cork moved within three of Galway, and it looked as though a new Rebel star had been born.

But Cork lost, Sweetnam never wore that red jersey again, and instead he donned the Munster senior red for the first time at Irish Independent Park three years later.

He gave up hurling for good at the end of that summer, and joined the Munster academy.

It culminated in his Pro12 debut against Cardiff Blues in Cork last February.

The former Bandon Grammar student came on after 66 minutes, and faced into a different cauldron. It was the opening of the redeveloped Irish Independent Park, and with familiar faces in the crowd Sweetnam wanted to do himself justice.

"That was awesome playing an All-Ireland semi-final in Croke Park - I never imagined I would have been playing there, and in front of so many people. But hopefully in the future I will be playing rugby in front of those big crowds too," Sweetnam says.

"But I was probably more nervous coming on against Cardiff than playing the semi-final against Galway.

"It was incredible for me, and was a dream come true. All of my family, my cousins, and even my aunties were in Cork that night.

"It's weird when you play in front of the bigger crowds, if you do any little thing the roar is incredible. It is just crazy.

"That sort of experience will hopefully stand to me in the future - I wouldn't be as nervous maybe because I had played in front of the big attendances before, so I might be able to handle it better."

Now 22, Sweetnam is a fully-fledged member of the Munster senior panel, and he wants to push on after making his sole senior appearance for the province.

The winger signed a development contract last January, to rule out any chance of a return to the Cork hurling ranks.

Next season he will be on a senior contract, and Sweetnam knows there is always room for improvement especially at such a young age.

Outlet

In 2015-16, he has played in three of Cork Con's league fixtures and scored a try against UCD - he wants to use this outlet as often as possible, to sharpen his skills.

"There is nothing better than getting match practice, especially when you are a professional athlete, so it is important to be playing week in week out like that," he says.

"If you are not playing with your province, it is good to play AIL. It is a great standard, especially in Division 1A, and there are a lot of good teams.

"I am just learning all of the time and I am still kind of new to professional rugby, so I am just trying to learn as much as I can, get as much knowledge in and get a few caps with Munster too."

Sweetnam represented Ireland in badminton at U-15 level, and hockey at U-16 - at Bandon Grammar, hockey was the main sport, so rugby was never on the cards.

But his versatility was a major asset and from the first time he lined out on a rugby field, it was clear he had something to work with.

Although only a newcomer to the game, he was handed the reins at No 10, and was involved as Bandon claimed three Munster B Cups in a row.

"They were on to me to play. So I gave it a go for the first time, in fifth or sixth year and we did well, I really got into the rugby from there," he says.

"We won three cups in a row, and I was part of that team. It was a big deal at the time, but for other senior schools it wouldn't have been.

"It's a very small tournament, but for us it was huge. I was out-half back then. Because I played there, I got to learn all of the skills - the ten is involved in nearly every play so it helped me learn the game."

It gave Sweetnam a grounding in the game, and his career took off from there. He began with Dunmanway RFC, before he played for UCC and then Dolphin.

In the meantime, he notched up appearances for the Munster U-18 and U-19 sides, played B&I Cup for the province, and was capped for Ireland at the World U-20 Championship. He dotted down twice in his first game at that tournament, against Fiji.

But his two biggest achievements have been more recent: signing the contract to keep him at the province until at least the end of next season, and making his debut in the 33-16 win over Cardiff.

"It was definitely a hard decision to give up the other sports. I was so used to playing so many different sports all the way up," he admits.

"But at the end of the day sport is my life, and I love it. So to do it for your job was obviously massive. I was delighted to sign for Munster.

"When I came into the game, I would have never in my wildest dreams imagined I would have got a contract like I have. So I was delighted and privileged.

"I was really happy to get the deal - I couldn't believe it was happening until it did."

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