When he choose a career as a professional rugby player over inter-county hurling, Darren Sweetnam believed he would never again experience anything to match the thrill of playing in an All-Ireland semi-final.
He was there in 2012 and even though Cork lost to Galway, it was still a wonderful experience for a 19-year-old. Soon afterwards, however, Darren chose rugby as his sporting way forward. He quickly graduated to the Cork Constitution AIL team before Munster came calling and that duly led to a place on the team to face the Maori All Blacks a couple of weeks ago.
“I haven’t experienced anything like it in my life,” he enthuses. “It was incredible. I remember standing in front of the Haka and saw all the phone lights shining down on us. I played in front of 65,000 at Croke Park in an All-Ireland semi-final but it was nothing like that. It felt like there were hundreds of thousands of people there. I suppose it was the full house... just the roar coming down. Munster fans are so loud... and they called that match a friendly!”
Sweetnam was just one of many heroes that night, just as he was in helping Munster to a bonus point win over Glasgow a fortnight previously on his European Champions Cup debut. Happy days for the versatile and richly talented 23-year-old native of Dunmanway. Even then, there was the chance of an Irish cap after receiving a call-up to the national panel session at Carton House.
“I don’t know about being close to an Irish cap but it’s nice to get called up anyway,” he says. “To be up there with some of the best players in the country, especially with the buzz in Irish rugby at the moment, see what things are like, is lovely. It’s nice to mix with those players.
“But winning a green cap is not on my mind at the moment. I’m just trying to keep my head down. If it comes eventually, obviously I’ll be delighted but...”
As if to prove his point, Darren reacts suddenly and instinctively when reminded very few are assured of their places in the current Munster team. “Oh stop! There’s so much competition. I came off at the weekend and Alex (Wootton) came on and then you have Ronan O’Mahony and Andrew Conway and Earlsy and Zebo to come back as well. That’s what you want, everyone fighting for their positions, it drives you on.”
Over the next couple of months, Munster must face Leicester Tigers and Racing 92 twice and Glasgow Warriors once in the Champions Cup, not to mention Glasgow and Leinster in the PRO12. It’s a daunting programme, by any standards, but one for which Sweetnam can hardly wait.
“These are the games you want to be playing in,” he states. “The two Leicester games are massive and everyone wants to play in them in front of a packed Thomond Park. But with all the competition, it’s going to be hard for me to keep my place.
“A lot has happened for me over the past 12 months. I was unlucky with injuries that stopped me getting into the team and once you are halfway through the season, they’re kind of reluctant to put you in because you haven’t played much. But once you take your chance, they see they can trust you and won’t be afraid to put you in again. They trust me now, at least I hope so, and I’m injury-free.
“It’s important you take those chances but you don’t want to be running around the place like a clown or whatever, you have to take your opportunities when they come.”
The first of these major challenges comes on the 4G pitch at Scotstoun tomorrow night when Glasgow Warriors will be all out to get their season back on track after a recent setbacks. Some may not like the artificial surface but it holds no fears for Sweetnam.
“It’s definitely a quicker game, you are bouncing on your feet and quicker off the surface. I enjoy it. I think it suits the back three or quicker players. Glasgow are a good side. They have players coming back and it will be a massive test, especially over there, a difficult place to win.”
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