Trailblazer Darren Sweetnam thrilled to see others follow his footsteps

Talented young rugby players from West Cork are a plentiful commodity these days with the Wycherley brothers and the Coombes’ cousins among those making a mark at Munster. And that trend is set to continue with a new crop, many of them attending Bandon Grammar School, on the horizon.

All are following the trail set by Darren Sweetnam, who turned his back on Cork hurling so as to concentrate on a career in rugby — though he admits his introduction to the game as a child was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

“It all began for me in Dunmanway where my dad Leslie was the head coach,” recalled the 25-year-old. “Only three turned up for the first session, me, my brother and my next door neighbour! After that, I moved on to Bandon Grammar and that’s when the rugby really started for me. I went on from there to Munster underage and the academy while also trying to manage all the other sports, hockey, hurling. I was a bit of an all-rounder.

“Rugby wouldn’t be a big game in West Cork but it’s great to see the guys coming through. That Leinster game after Christmas set the mark for Fineen (Wycherley) and then there are Gavin and Liam Coombes ... you have Bandon Grammar coming through at schools level. Gavin and I both went there and now they’re an A school as well, and that’s very positive. Hopefully we’ll keep producing players like Fineen, Gavin, and Josh Wycherley who is now playing with the Ireland U20s.”

‘Sweets’, as he is known to all in the Munster camp, quickly made his mark on the rugby field, representing Ireland at schools, U18, U19 and U20 levels, joining the provincial Academy in 2012 before graduating to a full contract which has been extended until at least 2021.

He has some well-recognised attributes in his game that have kept him pushing toward the highest levels in Irish rugby.

“I suppose the high ball has always been a high point of my game,” he said. “I don’t know whether that’s from my GAA background or what but it’s a part of my game I’ve always felt I was strong at. That’s an integral part of the Munster and Ireland game with Conor Murray there. He’s one of the best box kickers in the world. It’s all about transferring pressure. A big part of it also is our chase. Conway is massive at it, Earlsy as well, it’s important to get those kicks back in swing games. It’s something we practice a lot.

“Then there are my feet — I think I’m good in around the tight area. And I’m fast, you just have to be quick on the wing. Who’s the fastest in the squad? That’s a tough one. I’d say it’s still Earlsy... he seems to be getting faster”.

It all adds up to the compliment paid by Munster coach Johann van Graan earlier this season: “Sweets is one of the most gifted footballers that I’ve ever coached. He can do incredible things. He’s such an incredible footballer with his catch-and-pass, his feet, his running ability.”

Munster’s next two games are in Wales, Friday’s visit to Ospreys followed seven days later with an an assignment against the Scarlets. “Ospreys are a good side and will be gunning for us after losing to Ulster last weekend,” says Sweetnam. “I just need to concentrate on my own game, to try and hit a bit of form. I think I’m getting there slowly although with Earlsy and Andrew going well, it’s not easy to get that game time. I will just concentrate on what I’m doing and get in there at some stage. My aim is to go a step higher and that starts here.”

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