You may think that Darren Sweetnam could be feeling some pressure as he looks around the Munster training ground and sees the likes of Keith Earls and Simon Zebo limbering up for their first starts of the campaign.
Zebo and Earls are, after all, the senior Munster wings, Ireland stars ready and waiting to be unleashed as Rassie Erasmus transitions his squad towards the big games next month against Leinster, Castres, and Racing 92.
It would give a young wing like Sweetnam just cause for panic with such talent breathing down his neck, but the 24-year-old is happy with his lot after two tries in Munster’s first three games of the Guinness PRO14 campaign, in which he has played every minute.
The Munster back three — Sweetnam, fellow wing Alex Wootton, and full-back Andrew Conway — have hit the ground running, scoring eight tries between them as the province has produced three wins from three, two of them with bonus points.
Competition for places? Bring it on, says the man from West Cork.
“You can look at it as pressure,” Sweetnam said, “but I look at it on a positive note. As in we are a tight-knit squad, the competition drives us on and gets the best out of everyone. I look forward to that challenge. I’m just concentrating on my own game, working hard, and doing whatever I can do.
“It’s good though, isn’t it, to have all that competition. Especially in the back three, there is so much competition at the moment with Alex Wootton playing so well, Andrew Conway, Zeebs is coming back now, Keith Earls, Ronan O’Mahony. It’s one of the most competitive positions on the team. But it keeps us honest and makes us work hard.”
On the eve of last season, Sweetnam admits he would have sounded a different tone but having trust placed on his young shoulders, the former Cork hurler flourished at the start of the 2016-17 campaign as he clocked up 15 consecutive starts before an injury curtailed his run in the red jersey.
“The big thing for me is just getting match practice and just progressing from that,” he said.
“Sometimes I find if I have a break from the game I lose that match sharpness. So it is good for me to be playing week in and week out.
“I think confidence was my biggest thing (from 12 months ago). I wasn’t the most confident player but after last season and playing those games definitely got me more confident and I just need to keep progressing at that.”
The confidence has been further boosted by the no-fault policy of Erasmus and his coaching team. “Rassie and Jacques (Nienaber) and Felix (Jones) and Jerry (Flannery), they make it so easy to play,” said Sweetnam. “They have this motto, ‘you win some battles, you lose some battles’. That makes you play with so much more confidence, you are not afraid to make mistakes. Let’s say you miss a tackle, they say ‘laugh about it, you’ll get it next time’. That makes me play with so much more freedom and definitely helps my performance.”
It is an attitude Sweetnam relishes, particularly as Munster look to play a more varied attacking game following chastening knockout defeats last season to Saracens and Scarlets, with him and fellow wing Wootton featuring prominently on the offload charts at five apiece.
“If you’re on your wing you are always looking for work. If we are on the wing and the ball is gone the other direction we try to get off the wing and look for work.
“We are always looking for a place we can offer, either talking to the people inside us or getting off our wing and getting inside the 10 for a pass.”
That work ethic is something that will be needed on Friday night in Glasgow.
“We played Glasgow four times last year and I think they were all close margins. I think we beat them three points, two points, and one point, I think. So it’s going to be difficult to go over there to Scotstoun, we’re looking forward to it.”
The 25-year-old was an integral part of the Welsh side’s PRO12 triumph last season, scoring a try in the runaway final victory over Munster in Dublin, and Scarlets head coach Wayne Pivac is desperate to keep him in Wales.
But the former Ireland U20 star has been identified by Munster and the IRFU as the long-term successor to Donnacha Ryan, who left the Irish province for Racing 92 at the end of last season.
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