Cork are slated to face either Tipperary or Limerick at the semi-final stage at the end of June, and may have to plan without Sweetnam, who has impressed in his first campaign at senior level when featuring in their recent Division 1A league victories over Waterford and Dublin.
Sweetnam, a student in Bandon Grammar, is following in the footsteps of team-mate Conor Lehane and Limerick’s Declan Hannon who both combined senior inter-county hurling and their Leaving Cert in 2011. In both cases last year, former Cork boss Denis Walsh and former Limerick manager Donal O’Grady both opted to plan without the players as their respective Munster SHC ties occurred during the Leaving Cert.
“Obviously a player’s education comes first,” said Cork selector Seanie McGrath. “Darren’s exams go right up until the 19-20 of June and then we’re playing on the 24th. If we can accommodate it that he can play with us, then we will, because he’s been a breath of fresh air and he’s a fantastic young fella. But for any player, whether it’s his working career or his education, that has to come first. Hurling is secondary to that, it’s just sport.”
McGrath also revealed that defender Damien Cahalane will prioritise Cork’s U21 football campaign in the coming weeks over the senior hurler’s league schedule.
Cahalane was full-back on the Cork U21 side that claimed Munster honours last April and will be a key figure for John Cleary’s team that begin the defence of their provincial title with a semi-final clash on March 28 against Clare.
“We’re not being bullish about it at all. Damien’s an U21 player first and foremost. It’s very important that the burnout issue is in our minds and we need to manage Damien properly. He’s just finished Fresher hurling with UCC, he played Freshers football as well, he’s involved with his club Castlehaven in football, the Barr’s in hurling, the Cork U21 footballers and us. It’s all about getting the consultation right with other management teams.”
Meanwhile Cork captain Dónal Óg Cusack believes there is a steady stream of talent filtering through to the senior hurling setup despite the lack of All-Ireland underage glory recently. Cusack had the benefit of claiming All-Ireland minor and senior medals before he graduated to the senior setup himself in 1999.
“It benefited us, confidence-wise, to have won minors and U21s, but if you go around to all the hurling strongholds, there are still plenty of young lads with hurleys in their hands and there were loads of Cork lads involved in the Fitzgibbon final with the two Cork teams.
“All the young fellas on our panel are committed to Cork and have a great passion for it. That’s the key, as long as the will is there. I know we haven’t won underage All-Irelands but the U21 game between Cork and Limerick was one of the best last year, so sometimes you can be looking at the glass half-empty.
“From a player point of view, though, you need to be looking at the glass half-full.”
Cork have opened their Division 1A league campaign brightly and will be looking to maintain that trend next Sunday against a Galway team who they were emphatically defeated by in last summer’s championship.
“Last time we played Galway, they gave us a terrible beating up in Limerick,” admitted Cusack. “A defeat like that is a terrible way to end any season because every inter-county player starts off the year with high hopes.
“Everybody put a lot of effort in but it was a dark day for everyone involved, and all Cork supporters who went away that day feeling as bad as the players did. Everybody on the panel keeps talking about ‘step by step’, and that’s Galway next.
“The reality is Kilkenny and Tipperary are top of the pile and everyone else is playing catch-up. We’re under no illusions about where we stand.”