When Munster closed the door on Darren Sweetnam after seven years nearly 18 months ago, it wasn’t long before opportunity knocked on another door in France.
It was a move he had contemplated for some time, and one he now hopes might last a while longer, with his current club, ProD2 leaders Oyonnax, chasing promotion to the Top 14.
“France was always on my agenda,” the 29-year-old said, as he discussed his indirect journey from west Cork to eastern France, near the Swiss border, via a brief stopover in La Rochelle.
“There was no contract at Munster for me. Ronan O’Gara rang me in La Rochelle and said there was a spot there as a medical joker, so I jumped at that because La Rochelle were going so well. They’re a massive club in France, and I kind of wanted to get my foot in France.”
Sweetnam was released early from the final weeks of his contract at Munster in March 2021 to take up that short-term deal. He played six times, repaying O’Gara’s faith by scoring two tries against Pau.
A coach at the Top 14 side pointed Oyonnax in Sweetnam’s direction. They quickly offered him a two-year contract, which he snapped up.
Since switching France’s west coast for the Jura mountains on the country’s eastern flank, Sweetnam has played 29 matches, with 28 starts, and has scored eight tries.
“I’m loving it here,” he said. “Obviously, I was disappointed to leave Munster because that was my homegrown club, and I love Munster and I loved being there, but, unfortunately, things didn’t work out - and when ROG rang me that was my opportunity [to play rugby in France].”
The Irish international was back in the starting squad for last night's trip to 11th-placed Soyaux-Angouleme, having been rested for the previous Friday's deconstruction of opponents Aurillac - when the ProD2 leaders, unbeaten this season at their Stade Charles Mathon fortress, ran in seven tries to win 45-3.
That was Oyonnax’s 20th consecutive win at home. They last came second best at Mont-de-Marsan in mid-September. It was the fourth time they have broken 40 points in 12 matches. They have twice gone on to pass 50 points - and one of those times crossed the 60 threshold.
The final try against Aurillac was Oyonnax’s 53rd of their campaign to date. The 389 points they have racked up in 12 matches is 67 more than their nearest attack-stat rivals, second-placed Biarritz, who are 10 points adrift in the table. The 144 points they have conceded is 60 fewer than Agen, who have the second-best defence in France’s second-tier.
From the outside, as the ProD2 season heads to the halfway point, Oyonnax - one of the pre-season favourites for promotion to the Top 14 - appear unstoppable. Despite the numbers, Sweetnam said: “We’re going well at the moment but we won’t get too far ahead of ourselves,” he said.
“It’s a long season and there are a lot of difficult games to come. We’ve played a lot of home games and we’re in a good spot. We just need to keep things going.
“Obviously, the end goal is to get a home semi-final and then hopefully get promoted. That’s the goal, and we’re on the right path at the moment.”
Sweetnam’s contract is up at the end of the current campaign. Though there’s plenty of time yet, he hinted he would be happy to sign a new deal and, all being well, help the club in its return to France’s top flight.
“I’m loving it. I’m from Dunmanway; it’s kind of similar here, in a way,” he said. “There are great places close by like Lyon, and Geneva, and Annecy, but the town is small.
“There’s a great bunch of lads, and it’s a great local environment as well. The lads are all very close. We hang out a lot - I guess we’ve become very close that way.
“The [club] environment’s very good. We have Joe [El-Abd] as head coach - he runs a very good environment, so I’m really enjoying it. I’m very happy here. Hopefully, I can stay longer, but I’m not sure yet. It’s early days, but the plan would be to stay for a few more years, at least.”
One Oyonnax team-mate, in particular, impresses Sweetnam - prop Thomas Laclayat, the ProD2’s leading try scorer this season, with eight to his name already.
He’s not the only one taken with the 25-year-old. France coach Fabien Galthie, too, has his eye on the tighthead and called him up to international training squads, as he looks beyond next autumn’s World Cup in France.
Racing 92, meanwhile, have signed Laclayat for next season.
“He’s incredible,” Sweetnam said. “Obviously he’s leaving us next year - he’s signed a big contract at Racing, which he deserves to be honest because he’s been the best player the last two years I’ve been here. When he’s on the pitch we know the scrum is going to go well - and when we’re in their 22 and we’re two metres out, he’s impossible to stop.”
But Ireland is, unsurprisingly, where three-time international Sweetnam’s heart lies, and he believes Andy Farrell is some way down the right track - though he says they have a way to go yet.
“They’re number one in the world and in a very good spot. I guess this autumn they were trying to give a few young guys an opportunity - it was great to see Jack Crowley get an opportunity in a big Test. We both went to Bandon Grammar, so it was great to see him doing well.
“I know before the last World Cup, we were going very well, and so I think they’re going to learn from that and I guess they can deal with the pressure a bit better. They’re in a great place going into the World Cup.
“They still have a lot more to give. I still don’t think they’re playing to their full potential. Obvs, if we can keep Johnny Sexton fit as well - they’re a different team when he’s not playing.”
First, however, there’s the small matter of the 2023 Six Nations - and a match in Dublin, on February 11, against the side just below Ireland in World Rugby’s rankings.
“France are incredible, aren’t they?” he said. “The power they have up front, it’s hard to stop. That will be a massive, massive game.”