Darren Sweetnam has no regrets after leaving Cork hurlers behind

Munster player has made good progress at province since committing himself to oval ball

 

In their weepier moments, it doesn’t take much for Cork supporters to see him there, dropping anchor between centre back and midfield, running all day, a leader in a team not overburdened with them.

Maybe he wasn’t the wristiest hurler ever to pull on a red jersey but he was tall and athletic and physical and zippy so, y’know, they’d have found work for him.

Instead, when they line up against Tipperary tomorrow in Thurles, Darren Sweetnam will be sitting on his couch. Munster rugby player. Ex-Cork hurler. The one that got away.

One of the ones, at any rate. In the riches bequeathed to other sports over the past 15 years, it would be hard to match Cork hurling for generosity.

Sweetnam is another to go along with Tomás O’Leary and Setanta Ó hAilpín and Ciarán Sheehan and Colm O’Neill and Eoin Cadogan and the rest. If one is unfortunate and two is careless, try half a dozen for size.

He lopes into the lobby of a hotel down by the Lee, fresh from the gym. Although Munster’s season is over, he’s in pre-pre-season for the one to come. They break up officially next week, he’ll head for a holiday fairly sharpish after that and then they’re back in mid-June for the biggest season of his life.

He just turned 23 and has one season as a fully-contracted Munster player ahead of him before they either decide to re-sign him or he has to go looking for a new home.

“Yeah, this is it now. I’ve done okay this season but I have to kick on now. I got my start against Zebre [in January] and then played nine games in a row after that. If you’d offered me that at the start of the season, I’d have taken it. Actually I’d have said not a hope would I get nine games in a row. So yeah, I’m making progress.”

This is the life. You wouldn’t say he’s made it just yet but he’s made it further than most.

The incoming Munster director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus, has a rep for bringing through young talent so this wouldn’t be a bad time for Sweetnam to be putting his hand in the air. His career will pivot in one direction or the other over the next 12 months.

In that respect, there hasn’t been a more important period in his life since the summer of 2012 when he had to make the choice between going into the Munster academy and being a rugby player or staying out and being everything else.

Sweetnam grew up one of those extremely annoying people who was good at every sport he turned his hand to. He played under-16 hockey for Ireland, hurled for Cork, played football and badminton and rugby and more or less anything else that came his way.

JBM protégé

As a hurler, he flashed across the sky in 2012, the first season of Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s second stint in charge.

JBM came in with a mandate to rinse out the squad and so their league campaign that season saw the likes of Conor Lehane, Jamie Coughlan, Lorcán McLoughlin and Christopher Joyce to the fore.

Sweetnam made his debut the night Lehane scored seven points from play against Waterford in Páirc Uí Rinn. Hidden in plain sight.

Where the rest of them went off to college or work on the Monday morning, he picked up his back and headed for Bandon Grammar School. Still only 18, it was his Leaving Cert year.

“We used have assembly on a Tuesday morning in the school and my name would be called out at it. They’d always congratulate students who had done different things or whatever and after those league games it would be, ‘And well done to Darren Sweetnam, who hurled for the Cork seniors on Sunday.’ My friends would be messing with me, pushing me in the back and whatever. I was loving it.”

And they were loving him. Cork bounced through that league like Tigger on springs, coming quicker and brasher than they had any right to. They beat Kilkenny one Saturday night in a game fondly remembered on Leeside for Sweetnam knocking Mick Fennelly on his ass without a backward glance.

Though they got thoroughly Cody-ed in the final to the tune of a 14-point hammering, they carried their form through the summer. It ended in an All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Galway, an outcome pronounced by all as a terrific first season for JBM and his merry young men.

“I’ll never forget that Galway game,” says Sweetnam. “It was some experience. I was just finished my Leaving Cert and we were playing in front of 65,000 in Croke Park. That was something I had never experienced before. I came on just after half-time and I scored a point. You’d do the smallest thing on the pitch and the roar that came down from the stands was crazy.”

Humming away in the background though was a reckoning. He’d come to rugby late enough, only really getting into it properly when he was 15. But Munster were interested in seeing how far he could take it and with school over, it was time to decide what he was going to be. It was probably past time, truth be told, but he had managed to stave it off long enough.

Combine both

“I was playing senior hurling for Cork and under-20s rugby for Munster all through that time. I was trying to combine both but I didn’t want to tell anybody about it. Cork didn’t know about the rugby at all but obviously Munster knew about Cork because the reports from the league games were in the paper the next day.

“The way I got found out with Cork was I used always have to get massages off the physio, Deccie O’Sullivan, because my calves were killing me from doing so much in both sports. [Selector] Ger Cunningham started getting suspicious and he said, ‘Why are you always getting massages. You’re only a young fella, you’re still at school, you should be fresh the whole time.’

“So I had to tell them then. They weren’t too happy! Munster rugby were okay with it actually, they didn’t mind. But Cork wouldn’t have it.

“‘Ah no, no,’ Ger said. ‘You can’t be at that. You’ll have to choose between the two.’”

Easily said. But it was a pig of a decision to have to make. His father felt he’d already beaten the odds once to make it on to the Cork seniors and that maybe he’d be pushing his luck trying to do it twice.

Nothing was certain, obviously, but it did look like a long career stretched out ahead of him with Cork.

Munster offered him three years in the academy. Usually, a player of his age and inexperience would have been started off at sub-academy level but they knew the lure of the hurlers wasn’t to be taken lightly so they sweetened it just a touch.

Being a professional

In the end, the draw of being a professional sportsman couldn’t be ignored.

“I know there’d be people who wouldn’t understand why you’d do it. I don’t think they get that it’s a job. I don’t think they understand why you would leave Cork hurling. I’d have had a few people over the years coming to me and going, ‘Why did you do it?’

“I’m happy that it worked out. Because it was a big move to make. I had broken into the senior team in Cork and I was throwing it all away to go into the Munster academy.

“There was no guarantee it would work out and obviously, it’s very hard to make it as a professional rugby player. The way this season went, breaking into the first team, that’s a massive relief.”

He’ll settle in at four o’clock tomorrow, wouldn’t miss it for the world. But any pangs he felt about missing out are long gone. They have their world, he has his.

And bit by bit, he’s finding his place in it.

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