Conor Lehane knows from experience that Saracens will be facing a freak of nature if he plays in the Champions Cup semi-final in Dublin on Saturday.
Darren Sweetnam, who is currently progressing through his return-to-play protocols having failed a Head Injury Assessment during Munster’s Pro12 win over Ulster last Saturday, was once a team-mate of Lehane’s.
Through his teenage years, Sweetnam’s name was known across the county, a man marked for success in whatever discipline he should so choose.
An underage international at hockey and badminton, a magnificent hurler, and not a bad rugby exponent either, by all accounts.
Lehane hadn’t been as well informed of the Dunmanway native as others, but got a rude awakening in the 2010 Munster MHC quarter-final at Páirc Ui Chaoimh.
We’re not just talking about any old opposition either, but a Tipp team containing some of the game’s current stars.
Cathal Barrett, Seamus Kennedy, Jason Forde, Dan McCormack, Niall O’Meara, and John McGrath all featured — as they did so devastatingly against Kilkenny last September — while the Rebels side boasted future seniors such as Lehane, Christopher Joyce, Colm Spillane, Rob O’Shea, and Jamie Coughlan.
“That’s when I knew about him, really,” says Lehane of Sweetnam.
“It was only in our first game minor, against Tipp up in the Páirc, and I didn’t really know much about him because he was a year younger.
“So there were lads who know what he was like but I hadn’t heard much. Then the first game, he had popped over two points from the ’65 and I was like ‘oh f*** it, who is this fella?’
“He was unreal that day and that’s when the ‘Sweetnam era’ kicked off.”
The winger made his Munster debut on 14 February 2015, coming off the bench against Cardiff Blues. He recently signed a new contract until 2019, and scored a try in the European quarter-final win over Toulouse.
Based on what he’d seen at a young age, it stands to reason that Lehane isn’t shocked about the career trajectory of his former Cork team-mate.
“Not in the slightest, sure the man’s a freak,” grins Lehane.
“He’s a freak of nature, he’s unreal at everything. I remember when we were on the senior panel, we played Tipp in a league game.
“We drew and it was a vicious enough game, everyone was wrecked after it. He did a fitness test with a rugby team the next day and won it. Things like that.
“He was supposed to be unreal at all these other sports he played, so he’s just a freak and other people would always say that. You wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest that he would be at the top at rugby too.”
The duo were just one game away from playing in an All-Ireland senior final together under Jimmy Barry Murphy back in 2012. Lehane started in the 0-22 to 0-17 defeat to Galway at Croke Park, and in the 46th minute was replaced by powerhouse Sweetnam who scored a fine point.
“Yeah he came on against Galway that day. I was at Thomond Park (against Toulouse) the last day and it’s weird enough when you see him out there and how well he’s done.
“How if he didn’t pursue rugby, he’d definitely still be on the Cork panel. It’s weird how things work out when you commit to them, for him anyway he’s made the right decision. Rugby was always his number one sport.”
Competition for an Ireland shirt is fierce but legend Brian O’Driscoll tweeted in February that he is a “big fan of Darren Sweetnam. Think he’ll be capped by the end of the year”.
Lehane doesn’t disagree: “Definitely. Sure if he’s starting for Munster at 23 going on 24, I’d say it’s only a matter of time.”
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