Saturday 21 July 2018

High-flying Sweetnam eager to grasp every opportunity

Cork back answers call earlier than expected against Toulon and now wants more of same

Darren Sweetnam of Munster catches a high ball ahead of Chris Ashton of RC Toulon during the European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-final match between Munster and Toulon at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Darren Sweetnam of Munster catches a high ball ahead of Chris Ashton of RC Toulon during the European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-final match between Munster and Toulon at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Daragh Small

Simon Zebo's injury and 25th-minute departure from the scene caught the eye early during Munster's sensational victory over Toulon at Thomond Park last Saturday.

It was possibly his last Champions Cup tie in Limerick and he left to a massive reception from his adoring Munster faithful. But it provided Darren Sweetnam with a huge opportunity, and he took it.

The 24-year-old winger may not have impacted the scoreline directly, but he played his part in a wondrous defensive effort that only gave up one try to Munster's illustrious French counterparts.

The 2013, '14 and '15 Champions Cup winners looked to be back to their best when they scored seven tries in a scarcely believable 49-0 annihilation of rivals Clermont the previous weekend in the Top 14.

But Munster did enough to edge an enthralling quarter-final 20-19 in front of their brilliant fans, who created da raucous atmosphere in yet another unforgettable European fairytale victory.

"It was probably up there with one of the best atmospheres that I have ever experienced anyway," said Sweetnam.

"The Glasgow game last year, it would have been close to that one if not better. It was just unbelievable. It was one of those wins that don't come around very often. We were understandably on top of the world after it.

"But you couldn't write it really. Just the way the whole game went from start to finish. Right down to Andrew Conway's try at the end, he could have left that ball go out of play but he chose to catch it instead.

"And it's those small margins in the big games. You need the big moments to go your way. The whole place went absolutely crazy when he scored that try."

The Munster back-three division hasn't offered such strength in depth since the glory days when they claimed European Cups in 2006 and 2008.

Even an injury to Keith Earls didn't halt their progress against Toulon. But with that kind of talent on hand, Sweetnam has been forced to fight for his place throughout this season.

The Cork native started 24 of his 25 games for Munster last season. However, in 2017-18 he has featured off the replacements' bench in four of his 19 chances.

He is still getting plenty of minutes on the pitch, but recognises that he hasn't reached the same dizzying heights in this campaign, so far.

"I have had my ups and downs this season. I haven't been playing to the form that I reached last year," said Sweetnam.

"You are always ready to go and you are constantly warming up on the sideline. I didn't expect to come on that early against Toulon. But it was great to get the opportunity.

INVOLVED

"It was sad for Zeebs. It was his last Champions Cup game in Thomond Park but he will have more days with Racing. It was just nice to be involved from my point of view."

In November Sweetnam was thrilled to finally make his debut for Ireland. And after a short replacement appearance against South Africa, he played all 80 minutes in Ireland's clash with Fiji the following weekend.

"Getting my first cap was really special for me. And then I scored my first try too, against Fiji," said Sweetnam.

"But I didn't really push on from there. That's what happens, everyone goes through a tough phase. I haven't played as good as I know I can.

"When you play in those autumn internationals you don't really think past them. You have to be playing for your province in the European games if you want to be involved with Ireland again.

"I wasn't so I didn't really expect to be involved for the Six Nations or anything. But I'm looking to build from here now."

Sweetnam is set to head off on his holidays in the summer with his girlfriend Thea. But they haven't made any definite booking as the date remains uncertain. Munster could still do anything.

Munster trail Conference A leaders Glasgow Warriors by 12 points in the PRO14 standings. But they are still second and on their way to the knockout stages.

However, Europe goes front and centre after their brilliant win over Toulon. It took a mammoth performance to down a French giant, and now Munster can focus on doing likewise to Racing 92.

First up it's Southern Kings at Outeniqua Park tomorrow. Then Munster face Cheetahs before their mouth-watering rematch with Donnacha Ryan's Parisians.

"At the end of the day it is all about winning trophies. We want to win one badly," said Sweetnam.

"We haven't won a trophy since 2011. That's our aim and we are one step closer now. We are looking forward to the semi-final when we get back from South Africa.

"We're enjoying our time here but we're hard at work preparing for this game with Southern Kings. And then it's on to Cheetahs in another big league game.

"I had never been to South Africa so I was really looking forward to it, and it has lived up to expectations but the training has been tough in the heat.

"We are exactly where we want to be now. We are into the semi-final in Europe. We have the play-offs to play in the PRO14. It's what we wanted when we set out our goals at the start of the season.

"There is a lot of competition in the back-three at Munster at the moment. There are so many great players but I will just keep working hard and hopefully the opportunities will come my way before the end of the season."

Irish Independent

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